Group Mentality: Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) – Blu-ray review
Howard Hawks makes his “crazy man on a quest” movie but the director is far too relaxed to give in to the madness.
(Howard Hawks, 1948)
Making a film is one of the craziest things anybody can do – so it makes sense for directors to make a film about some equally crazy quest. Think of Aguirre, Wrath Of God, or Apocalypse Now, stories whose lunatic protagonists have become inseparable from the lunatics who tried to recreate their schemes with a camera rolling.
Red River belongs to this heritage – but it also provides a thoughtful commentary upon it. In other hands, Tom Dunson, the cowboy tyrant who tries to force his men to embark on a potentially suicidal cattle drive, would be a Kurtz or an Aguirre, and the film would warp to its anti-hero’s vision. Here, though, there is an alternative, as the resentment amongst Dunson’s men spills over into revolt spearheaded by the boss’ protégé, Matthew Garth. Dictatorship – or solidarity? There is more than one way to make a film.
Howard Hawks is celebrated these days as one of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs, but back in the 1940s he was seen as a craftsman rather than an artist. That’s because his style is so self-effacing, preferring not to draw attention to the rich, consistent themes and visual style of his work. Red River is a great example, because the form and content are so well matched. This is a film about the need to get along when doing a professional job, made by a director who feels the same way.
Hawks’ camera is classical and unobtrusive, a first amongst equals – more so in this film, where second unit specialist Arthur Rosson is credited as co-director for the stunning, ‘how did they do that?’ shots of the cattle drive at work. These are as good as any of the crazy escapades caught on camera by Herzog or Coppola, but Hawks doesn’t try to take the credit – he’s happy to celebrate the role of others.
The same goes for the cast. John Wayne is the star, but he’s pushed harder by Hawks than anybody previously, paving the way for the likes of The Searchers. Put simply, Dunson is a bastard, a guy who arrogantly assumes land for himself and murders those who dare to call him on it. It is capitalism in action – and also, perhaps, an oblique commentary on how a star rises to the top? But Hawks doesn’t let him get away with it. This is an ensemble piece, not only in the obvious friction with Method boy Montgomery Clift as Garth, but a repertoire company of familiar Western faces like Walter Brennan and Hank Worden.
Like so many Hawks films, this is all about the group dynamic and Hawks slyly builds it into the film’s grammar. The film’s most famous shot is a bravura 180 degree pan showing the extent of Dunson’s empire just as the cattle drive begins; it feels like a point of view shot, until the camera reveals Dunson himself, the master brought into equality. And then – in a sequence repeated at other times during the film – Hawks portrays action as a rapidly-cut montage of faces as the team goes to work.
The result indicts the foundations of Dunson’s philosophy and, by consequence, that of the whole pioneer myth of the West… and of Hollywood. This is as inclusive as a Western gets, not least in its tone, an easy-going blend of action, Freudian drama and jollity. Sure, it’s of its time: the Native Americans are mostly anonymous savages and the female lead falls in love with Garth within hours of meeting him. Yet even on these shaky foundations Hawks is streets ahead of his peers. The only named ‘Injun’ might be a comic character but isn’t the butt of the jokes (and, refreshingly, is played by an actual Native American, Chief Yowlachie). Meanwhile, Joanne Dru’s Tess turns out to be hard as nails, a typical Hawksian woman, come the film’s glorious ending, in which the anticipated shootout plays out more like the climax to a comedy than a tragedy. So it should be, because there is more than one way to end a film.