I know people who never watch old movies, which means they’re missing out on the good stuff.
Yesterday I watched a classic that I’d never seen before, Red River, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. This gem of a Western is from 1948, and it will take you to places you never expected to go.
John Wayne has to drive 10,000 head of cattle a thousand miles over difficult terrain, or wind up in the poorhouse. Seems simple enough.
But how did he acquire 10,000 longhorns in the first place? Well, we see from the start of the movie that this man does things his way, nobody else’s. At first it looks like we’re going to see a work in praise of rugged individualism. But if you’re paying attention, you may quickly begin to conclude that maybe Wayne’s individualism is a bit too rugged. He becomes a great cattleman by cutting corners, doing whatever he thinks is best at the moment, and shooting people.
So, he has to move this immense herd from deep in the heart of Texas to the market in Missouri, and nothing’s going to stop him. He has to drive his herdsmen, too. Because the way is so hard, the work so demanding, Wayne grows more and more ruthless until, in co-star Walter Brennan’s words, “He’s plumb outta his head.”
A couple of men decide they’ve had enough, and quit. Wayne sends a gunslinger to catch them and bring them back. Then he proposes to hang them for the crime of quitting their jobs. I’m sure we have all worked for bosses who would have liked to do this; but you really can’t, you know. Therefore Wayne’s adopted son, Montgomery Clift, with a little help from others, prevents the hanging and takes over the herd because his adopted father has become a danger to everybody else. For this, Wayne swears vengeance. And you know what? Everybody believes he means to get it.
Fear of their former employer, turned homicidal maniac, lends wings to their feet and they finally get the herd to market. And that’s where John Wayne catches up to them–that’s where he means to keep the oath he swore to kill his son.
Whew. This is a dark and brooding movie, masterly in its depiction of character. If this isn’t the best acting John Wayne did in all his long career, I don’t know what is. The great thing about the screenplay is that, when you look back on it, you can see that it all falls into place: this was what was bound to happen.
The only flaw is that they changed the ending to make it a happy ending that is totally at odds with the story. So just ignore the last five minutes.
And ignore all those movies based on comic books and video games, etc., and sink your teeth into some of the good old stuff.