Last time John Wayne appeared on the List was nine years before this, in Stagecoach, as a tough and jaded youngster, smooth-talking and good with a gun, but he looked really young there, like a still-vulnerable twentysomething, whereas here — fifteen or twenty pounds heavier with a good bit of gray in his hair — Wayne looks about twenty years older. Maybe that’s the performance, and the makeup, but it’s convincing; and, as a ranch owner who’s leading 9,000 heads of cattle across a dangerous 1,000-mile terrain with a team of a few dozen employee-cowboys, his slow-growing Lord of the Flies-style fascism is also pretty convincing. Bullish, drunk, paranoid and violent, accusatory, self-righteous. I wanna say it’sa persuasive arc for the character but even in the beginning of the film, when Wayne’s character, Thomas Dunson, is setting out (as a much younger man) to get some land of his own and cultivate the largest cattle farm in town, he still isn’t all that likeable. The woman he loves is murdered right there on his watch, and he barely emotes. He himself murders a couple Native Americans, and looks nonplussed about it. It isn’t as bad as Steven Seagal but it’s reminiscent. His characters’ vulnerability, his uncertainty, is communicated to the viewer by his right-hand man, Groot (the always-perfect Walter Brennan), who tells us of the goodness and tenderness that Dunson contains in himself and hides from the world.
I’m not in love with Stagecoach and I wasn’t all that psyched for Red River but I like this movie way more than I thought I would, and the 2+-hour runtime doesn’t feel so long as it otherwise might.
But I bristle at this Old West sensibility, still present in weaker action flicks, that a man’s scorched-earth douchebaggery is some kinda shield for his kind and tender soul.
Also, holy shit, I figured the cowboy vs. Indians narrative would be bad when I got to it, hued with genocide, but I frankly didn’t think it would be as common as I’d been lead to believe, or as egregious. Actually watching these actors playing Natives (half-naked white men in brownface, it seems) feign slaughter by the droves while our sour dickface protagonist twirls his gun like the world’s owed to him is pretty unsettling. I think I’m good about observing an era for what it was and not taking it too seriously, but Jesus. This one’s heavy.
Montgomery Clift also debuts on the List here as a way more humble and affable character than his good looks would suggest. There’s some bravado and leadership and Hollywood courage from his character later on but, as this is a story about fathers and sons, there’s something inherently boyish about his character from start to finish.
Clift plays Matthew, Dunson’s adopted son, whose allegiance to the surly rancher’s rule seems unwavering until, worn down by what he believes are betrayals, Dunson turns vicious, paranoid, and the younger Matthew has to start standing up for their many hired hands.
The father-son conflict is interesting. And while I’ve got mixed feelings about how Wayne emotes when it comes to action and violence, he achieves something interesting here where, talking with the same amount of bravado all through the movie, he somehow goes from sounding formidable and authoritative to pathetic. I heard a podcast with Scott Eyman recently, Wayne’s biographer, who says this movie, and Howard Hawks’s direction, helped Wayne to break into a new mode of acting. He didn’t have to be a hero.
I’m thinking of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, playing a vulnerable old guy who’s angry about life passing him by, and he plays that vulnerability, anger, and helplessness in a way that still lets him hold convincingly to his bravura.
Eastwood might be an upgraded John Wayne. (Somebody’s probably written about this at length.)
The movie only feels outright weak at the very end, in a way that’s both annoying and gratifying. I don’t wanna spoil it. Suffice to say that an inevitable confrontation I was dreading (in a good, excited way) ends up resolving itself way too quickly and not the least bit convincingly.
I really dig the movie overall, though. Is it better than Stagecoach? No. But I definitely prefer it. And as it ranks in Hawks’s movies from the List so far, I’d say it’s a step up from Scarface but not quite so perfect as To Have and Have Not.