As we travel through our moviegoing lives, time and distance can be marked by a dawning appreciation for the types of stories we didn't care about when we were younger.
I've written over the years about my childhood ambivalence regarding Westerns, in relation to every other type of movie out there. To be sure, I saw a lot of cowboys on screen between the years 1968 and 1974 or '75 because I saw just about everything that made its way to a theater in Racine, Wis., during that period. A lot of these were facetious or casually sadistic second-raters, the dregs of a genre losing its way: John Huston's "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean," for example, or Mark Rydell's "The Cowboys," which ends with John Wayne's proteges turning into the kind of stoic killers we're encouraged to admire from a vulnerable age.
And then came the epiphanies by way of older films, beginning with Howard Hawks' first Western and one of my favorites, 1948's "Red River."
Last week the Hawks film was released in a lavish four-disc Criterion Collection set, including both the original theatrical cut and the pre-release cut, substituting Walter Brennan's narration with title cards, hand-written, like long-ago missives postmarked Chisholm Trail. The film's hasty and famously problematic ending, a chipper overhaul of the Borden Chase Saturday Evening Post serial on which "Red River" was based, comes in for proper scrutiny and careful analysis. The pre-release finale contains a few crucial extra beats, showing Wayne's implacable rancher homing in on his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift. The original story ended in death; the movie ends in a fistfight, some banter and an assertion that a happy ending is possible, and good for box office, even when it's not dramatically advisable.
The Criterion extras feature a first-rate interview with critic Molly Haskell, herself a clear-eyed, tough-minded example of what became known as "the Hawksian woman." The film's central conflict between the Wayne and Clift characters is all about "male pride," "male ego" and in the film's depiction of a hermetic, predominantly male subculture, "the lure of infantilism," in Haskell's words.
Wayne's performance eight years later in John Ford's "The Searchers" (a great film I can't personally love; the solemnity is too much, but that's a column for another week) is unthinkable without his work in "Red River." The grueling odyssey brings out the best and the worst in his character, a mulish rugged-individualist type at odds with his son, whose code of honor is more generous to the men risking their necks on the cattle drive from post-Civil War Texas.
Generational conflict lies at the heart of so many Westerns, none more vividly than in Hawks' film. The famous John Ford quote — "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!" — came after Ford, the wagon master of the genre, saw what first-timer Hawks drew from Wayne. The Method-trained Clift's psychologically nuanced approach to his craft was antithetical to Wayne's foursquare simplicity, yet the two performers found a common language. (For a more extreme and stylistically combative example of this generational and aesthetic divide, check out Raymond Massey trying to make sense of James Dean's anguish in "East of Eden.")
I discovered "Red River" at the age of 12, thanks to the Richard Schickel-produced public TV series "The Men Who Made the Movies," which was my introduction to the auteur theory. I doubt it made sense to me at the time: What could "Red River" possibly have in common with Hawks films such as "Scarface" (gangster) or "Twentieth Century" (screwball) or "Only Angels Have Wings" (aviator) or the paragon, the one I already knew I loved, "His Girl Friday"? In artful shorthand, Schickel drew the connections and highlighted the common themes of camaraderie, an easy-breathing blend of comedy and drama ("Only Angels Have Wings" is stunning in that regard; it's one of the three or four key Hawks films) and a way of infusing the stuff and juice of life into the formulas of cinematic storytelling. He knew when to cut and when to hold a shot, and how to move a camera. In "Only Angels Have Wings" watch the half-dozen shots Hawks deploys to show Jean Arthur at the piano performing "Some of These Days" and the peanut vendor song for Cary Grant. The exquisite swirl of activity delights anew with each viewing. Similarly, in "Red River," the soundstage interior depictions of men around a poker table, for example, are no less beautiful and apt than the open-air landscape shots.
In 2008 the American Film Institute, which regularly issues best-of lists designed to make you crazy, picked "Red River" as the fifth-best Western of all time. It's higher than that. I don't view it as a Western, really, even with all that cattle. It's a Howard Hawks film first, even before it's a John Wayne film, and Criterion has done wonderfully by its portrait of men on a deadly mission, trying to make sense of the personalities deciding their fates.