DVD Review: Red River

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Howard Hawks | CAST: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray, John Ireland
RELEASE DATE: 5/27/14 | PRICE: DVD/Blu-ray Combo $39.95
BONUSES: Paperback of original novel, audio interview with Borden Chase, audio interview with Hawks, new interview with Western expert Lee Clark Mitchell, new interview with Molly Haskell, new interview with Peter Bogdanovich, “Lux Radio Theater” version of film
SPECS: NR | 127 min. | Western | 1:37 fullscreen | Dolby Digital mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

 

Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River continues to occupy a singular place in American movie history, as he made archetypal films in nearly every single Hollywood genre and almost single-handedly created a much-beloved subgenre (the screwball comedy). It’s fascinating to consider that he didn’t make a Western until he had been directing for over 20 years, at which point he turned out this masterpiece.

Coming in the post-war period when old values were being challenged on every front,  Red River perfectly encapsulated the restlessness of the era by casting an “old” performer, John Wayne (True Grit), as a single-minded, often cruel cattle baron. He is pitted against a “new” performer, Montgomery Clift (in his first movie role), who plays the role of his surrogate son, the only man who will stand up to his tyrannical and sadistic behavior.

Red River movie scene

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift head to Missouri in Red River.

This clever combination of stars makes the film seem timeless and ensured that it quickly became one of the most popular and important Westerns of the late Forties. This generous Criterion release of the film comes in a dual-format box set containing two standard DVDs and two Blu-rays. The discs include both cuts of the film, a host of supplements, and a paperback version of the novel the film is based on, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail by Borden Chase.

Chase is heard in an audio supplement where he declares Hawks’ lighter ending to the film (Wayne’s character died in the novel) “a lotta garbage!” Western historian Lee Clark Mitchell has a more reverent attitude toward the picture, discussing the “parental issues” it contains, as well as its relationship to the Westerns that preceded it.

In an interview shot for this collection, critic Molly Haskell discusses how Hawks challenged genre stereotypes in his picture and how the Joanne Dru character in Red River fits into the phenomenon known as the “Hawksian woman” (best exemplified by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Lauren Bacall in her two Hawks pictures).

Filmmaker/film historian Peter Bogdanovich discusses Hawks the man and Hawks the artist in another interview shot for this package. He talks about Hawks’ approach to making films, including his love of “oblique dialogue” and eye-level camera angles. He also explores how Red River changed Wayne’s career, allowing him to play tougher, meaner roles.

He differentiates between the two versions of the film, noting that, while Hawks preferred the shorter (127-minute) version, the big gun- and fistfight confrontation between Wayne and Clift works a lot better in the longer 133-minute “prerelease” version (which, in recent years, has been the version of choice for airings on TCM and the like).

Perhaps the most entertaining supplement is an audio segment from a 1972 interview Bogdanovich conducted with Hawks. Here the plainspoken director talks about his filmmaking philosophy of shooting “two or three good scenes” per picture and in the meanwhile trying “to not annoy the audience.”

One can almost hear the disappointment in Bogdanovich’s voice when his hero and friend notes he doesn’t “believe in black and white” for modern films. The director of The Last Picture Show protests that Red River is a glorious B&W work, but Hawks cuts him off, maintaining it would’ve been a lot better in color.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”