Tuesday, June 10, 2014

RED RIVER From Criterion

One of the greatest Westerns of all time--some would even say the greatest--has just been released on Blu-ray/DVD by Criterion. It is Howard Hawks' majestic RED RIVER (1948).

Those who have seen RED RIVER for the first time might wonder what all the fuss is about. They might consider the movie a somewhat generic Western tale about a giant cattle drive. That's because those viewers do not realize that RED RIVER introduced several now-familiar Western stereotypes. Dozens of films and TV shows have been inspired by RED RIVER (perhaps "copied" or "ripped off" are more accurate terms).

John Wayne (in one of his best roles) plays larger-than-life Texas cattle baron Tom Dunson, who is forced by financial circumstances to attempt to drive his entire stock on an arduous journey to Missouri. Dunson's adoptive son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his film debut) has some very different ideas on how the drive should go. Dunson becomes more and more obsessive, and eventually Matt and the other trail hands take over the heard and leave Dunson stranded and injured. Dunson swears he will catch up to Matt and kill him. This sets up a showdown between Tom and Matt which ends in a rather peculiar way.

After seeing the film, legendary director John Ford was supposedly so impressed by John Wayne's performance that he told Howard Hawks, "I didn't know the big son-of-a-bitch could act!!" Personally I think Ford knew Wayne could act all along, or else he would have never used him in the first place. I feel Ford was really expressing his surprise at what a great Western Hawks had made, and what a great job Wayne did in the film. Howard Hawks is one of the classic Hollywood directors who doesn't get as much respect as, say, Ford, Capra, or Billy Wilder. This is because Hawks never tried to be an "artist" and he never tried to have a message or a theme; he just tried to make entertaining films. Hawks worked in every genre possible, and he mastered every one of them. RED RIVER was, believe it or not, his very first Western. Upon seeing RED RIVER one would think that Hawks had been making Westerns for years.

The movie has many memorable moments--the beginning of the film, where Wayne says goodbye to his true love; the start of the cattle drive; the cattle stampede; an Indian attack; and the climax, which I won't give away, and which some may say is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

I had actually not seen RED RIVER in a while until I bought this Blu-ray/DVD set. I used to think that Montgomery Clift was miscast in this film--but after seeing both versions of RED RIVER, I've changed my mind. The whole point of the story is that Matthew Garth and Tom Dunson are two very different people--and Montgomery Clift is 180 degrees different than John Wayne. If Hawks had cast a more "tougher" personality--say, Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster (who were also starting their film careers in the late 1940s)--the story might not have worked as well.

RED RIVER has a fine supporting cast of well-known faces, including Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Hank Worden, Harry Carey Sr. (and Jr.), Noah Beery, and Paul Fix. There's also Joanne Dru...and how you feel about her will depend on how you feel about the film's ending.

Criterion once again puts out an impressive package. There are four discs overall--two DVDs and two Blu-rays. There are two versions of RED RIVER presented here--a 133 minute "pre-release" cut, and a 127 minute "theatrical" cut. The "pre-release" cut is the one that is usually shown on TV--and why that is, I don't really know, and the extras in this set do not explain it, either. The 127 minute version is the one that was originally released to theaters. The main difference between the versions is that the 133 minute version has diary pages on the screen instead of narration by Walter Brennan, and the climax is longer. Apparently Hawks preferred the shorter version, but I like the longer one. I think Walter Brennan's narration in the shorter cut is unnecessary--RED RIVER is made so well you really don't need someone explaining to you what is going on.

There's plenty of extras, including interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, and author Lee Clark Mitchell; audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Bogdanovich and Howard Hawks; audio excerpts from a 1970 interview with RED RIVER screenwriter and author Borden Chase; and audio of a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of RED RIVER from 1949. All the extras (and both versions of the film) are on both DVD and Blu-ray.

The best extra of them all is an actual copy of the novel BLAZING GUNS ON THE CHISHOLM TRAIL by Borden Chase--the very book on which RED RIVER was based on. Hopefully Criterion will do this for future releases.

I'm sure that when the end of this year rolls around, Criterion's release of RED RIVER will be on my top five Blu-ray/DVD list.

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