Monday, March 9, 2009

The Great Movies: "Red River"

Red River
Howard Hawks, 1948

When I was around ten, I stayed with my oldest sister at college, and by way of evening entertainment she took me to a John Wayne movie being screened on campus. Watching Red River last night was only my second exposure to Mr. Wayne, so it is safe to say that I don't have a deep understanding of this American icon.

Apparently, Red River is one of the finest films to star Wayne, and the one in which he is thought to have best employed his acting skills. This gives me a profound sinking sensation when I consider the rest of his large corpus, which must therefore be worse than this piece of crap. For Red River is a straightforwardly bad genre movie, exactly the film I feared I would be watching when I saw My Darling Clementine a few weeks back. Wayne is a block of wood who, throughout the film, sounds like he's reading a script into a Dictaphone; a half hour toward the end of the film when he is largely absent from the action is far and away the least bad part.

I have read that there are people who think of John Wayne as a kind of American hero or saint, as an exemplar of the qualities of our great (or, at the very least, our very large) nation. It is disturbing, then, to see him here portraying a deeply evil character. Ebert, curiously, wants to see him as an ambiguous character, and to see that ambiguity as the interesting part of the movie. But no, there's really nothing ambiguous about it. The film begins with the Wayne character knowingly abandoning his friends and fiancé to danger, then watching impassively from a distance as they are all killed a few hours later, then stealing some land, then murdering a representative of the rightful owner in cold blood. And that's all in the first ten minutes.

Subsequent scenes show him stealing his neighbors' cattle, bullying them (the neighbors, not the cattle) into submission, attempting to murder an employee, successfully murdering three other employees, and finally attempting an execution-style murder of two more. He is admittedly also fond, albeit in a grotesquely dysfunctional fashion, of a young man he adopts early in the film, but the idea that this makes him morally "ambiguous" is frankly preposterous.

Plot: Some ranchers move cattle a long distance, overcoming difficulties along the way.

Visuals: Lots of pictures of ranchers doing their work. It struck me here, as it has before, that there is really nothing unusually interesting about the work of ranchers. You seldom see films with long montages of 19th Century farmers, office workers, or office laborers going about their tasks, but filmmakers often seem to think that maneuvering herd animals has inherent fascination. I don't get that.

Dialog: Although badly delivered by Wayne and by some of the supporting cast, the script is weirdly macho but no worse than your average genre movie. An exception is the dialog given to the film's one female character, whose lines boil down mostly to three soliloquies that are almost dumb enough to be fascinating, but not quite.

Prognosis: Don't touch it with a ten-foot pole.


Dug said...

I pretty much never read movie reviews but this is just about the best movie review I've ever read! Nice job. I'll actively avoid Red River from now on despite the intriguing geographical title and my love of watching cattle move around.

Yankee in England said...

My grandpa is seriously into John Wayne like John Wayne toilet paper holder serious (Don't Ask) I have happy memories of going to my grandparents house and watching McClintock. Happy memories in the same way that I think of watching 7 Brides for 7 Brother or Oklahoma kind of meories shit movie fun times!

Elaine said...

Oh, I'm so old I've seen ALL of John Wayne's movies, many in first-run theaters. He plays the same person in every one of them-- (note Nathan Lane's send-up of Wayne's walk in "The Birdcage.") They are all dated stinkers, but your review is so funny that I hope you will watch more of them. "Hatari" at least has cute elephants, but it is hard to choose the most abysmal....

Anonymous said...

I am going to blame Steinbeck for the farm work trend.

I have seen this one. I was forced to along with several others and also encouraged to read the L'Amour books all by the same guy. Uncle Bob, the line worker who seemed to have a cruel notion of what it meant to be a man. I like to think his fondness for Jack Daniels was his self medication to be able to live with the discrepancies between what he admired in a man and what was actually, you know, good about being a man.

With social roles being more flexible now, a guy who is the near embodiment of the worker drone does seem to have the appeal and depth of a block of wood.

So glad to be living outside of that era for the most part.

Chance said...

I think The Searchers is usually touted as Wayne's best work. And that actually does have some moral ambiguity to it.

Elaine said...

Now that you mention it...The Searchers was faithful to the book, by and large........and then there was his Alamo movie--"Green Hills of Summer" was the theme; it was a critical failure because it was not the upbeat hero version...but I do not know if he had a role or was just the driving force for making the film.

Anonymous said...

The Searchers, The Shootist, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Worth it worth it worth it.

Michael5000 said...

"The Shootest" is one of the strangest movie titles I've ever seen.

mysterymoor said...

I had to watch this for uni and found it a pain too. I'm not a Western person at all.