For someone so often compared to John Ford, it is faintly surprising that Howard Hawks largely strayed away from conventional Westerns early in his career. In fact, he strayed away from conventional Westerns throughout his entire career (his two Western masterpieces, one of them our present subject and the other to come eleven years later, are hardly conventional). But he strayed from Westerns entirely for most of his early career at least. Perhaps he felt his duty lied elsewhere, perhaps he wanted to avoid the Ford comparison, or perhaps the ever-humble and straightforward, workaday director just did what he was told by the studio. For this last reason, Howard Hawks is often considered the secret auteur, or the greatest craftsperson in all of cinema, a director who favored perfection of nuts and bolts filmmaking over stylistic invention running away with his films.
But Hawks had pet themes, none more-so prevalent than the lightly combative interpersonal sparring between men who were always, even in their friendships and camaraderie, bound to and limited by certain masculine power dynamics and the need to assert their superiority and dominance to their compatriots. This theme, when pursued with Hawks’ temperamental habit of deconstructing and reconstructing dialogue by barking human voices at one another such that words are no longer recognizable but the cacophony of violent sounds remain, could challenge and prod at a chosen genre, any genre. Hawks was a blunt director and his interpersonal relationships on screen were barbaric collages of identities and noises competing with one another for screen time. Listening to people talk on screen has never been more exciting, largely because we can’t always hear what they are saying in a Hawks film, and we have to confront the irreconcilable fact that actually listening to each other is a goal blockaded by our punishing desire to assert agency with our voices, and to dominate the world with our speech.
In the Western world, one of the calmest and most conventionally “brotherly” of all film genres, a stark chokehold from Hawks’ concrete sound design threatens to rattle the leisurely singularity of the West up a little bit. Ford remains the master of the Western genre, but by 1948 with Red River, Hawks was accomplishing far more in the realm of exploring what the West actually meant as a device we use to send us off to our dreams. As Ford would do with The Searchers, Hawks envelops John Wayne in a mythic allure – an allure Wayne seemingly carried with him in a briefcase everywhere he went – and then proceeds to jab knives into that allure by curdling Wayne’s romantic macho demeanor into an authoritarian heel who rules over his crew with an iron fist.
In Red River, Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a cattle company owner who is ready and willing to help settle the Texas territory with his blustering stampede of animal hoofs and bellicose howls of human individualism. He gives all of his herders an out when they leave on a long journey to Texas, promising them a job will remain available to them when Wayne finishes his exploit (an exploit bombastically filmed in wide shots and volcanically edited by Christian Nyby – the famous montage of every rancher setting out for the ride is titanically, voluptuously exciting editing – to emphasize the sheer adventure of a piece where adventure slowly turns cold and deadening). As the trip lurches toward its middle legs, however, Wayne’s character grows bristling and committal as his fatherly, avuncular demeanor siphons off into a series of warning shots and shots of a more bloodied variety. When the going gets tough, Wayne’s commitment to his own ego toughens, his investment in his capitalist property tightens. His dedication to using that masculine, liberal definition of property to pave the way for his definition of a civilized West turns nasty and cruel.
Hawks, with screenwriters Borden Chase and Charles Schnee, is essentially posing a morality play in the Old West (the most fertile land of America’s morality plays, largely because it has always served as a testing ground for the American identity). A morality play that Ford would also adopt with The Searchers, where the central question becomes whether or not American definitions of civilization actually have room for the violent, oppressive bricks and mortar they were constructed out of. It is not the most radical claim; like Ford, Hawks doesn’t seem willing to fundamentally indict notions of American civilization, but simply to question their innocence and to doubt their mechanisms. But for 1948, when the Western genre was largely still the land of untroubled wholesale Americana (Anthony Mann hadn’t even begun his series of clipped, brutal meditations of the violence of the West yet), Red River is a genuine rascal. It is a muckraker with an actual line in the sand, begging and asking Wayne’s figure to venture over to the right side of history. The film’s definition of “right” may still be fairly conservative, but the question remains provocative all the same.
Throughout the film, Wayne is confronted by Montgomery Clift, a child turned teen who looks up to Wayne’s braggart brand of American fatherhood and his trumpeting of the American individualist tradition in its purest and most rugged form. But the younger male grows weary of his adoptive father when he sees his elder’s individualism for the bitter, inhumane, even anti-social ruckus it becomes when put in charge of the goodwill of other human beings. Clift plays his role with youthful scruffiness and unformed charisma befitting the character’s age, but Wayne is the real standout. Here, like never before, he uses his syrupy baritone and often theatrical, non-realist acting style to evoke how performative his character’s masculinity is. Wayne’s deliberate manner of diction, more an idealized Southern drawl where the words crawl rather than speak, becomes a calling card for the character’s fictionalized Southern gentility. As the film moves on, Wayne turns the character cold, his voice moving from molasses to bilious oil in a remarkably self-reflective turn that sees the actor critiquing his own decade-long identity. A statement that applies to the film as well. While the finale is infamously a collapse of sorts, it only enhances the philosophical import of the film by diminishing the gravitational pull of over-inflated drama. By puncturing the character’s masculine compulsions and rupturing the attendant cinematic itch to falsely inflate the drama to violent catharsis, the film does not flatten out its conclusion into a drama-less void. Instead, it christens a new vision of interpersonal communication and mutual respect as a necessary corollary of progress and the democratic impulse.