Howard Hawks’ filmography is ripe with movies about strong men embroiled in struggles both personal and professional. Red River, his 1948 western masterpiece, pits two of the screen’s most iconic presences – John Wayne and Montgomery Clift – in a kind of Mutiny on the Bounty out west that is so filled with the flavor of the Old West: the dust, the rugged terrain, the bone-crushing physical endurance and also the amiable, crusty camaraderie and the endless and hauntingly beautiful wide open spaces that it’s become one of the screen’s most highly regarded westerns. The new Criterion edition offers both the original theatrical cut and the pre-release version that’s become more familiar to video audiences over the years. Both are contained in an expansive package that is one of Criterion’s premiere releases of 2014.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 2 Hr. 7/13 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray, DVDbook-like pasteboard holder inside a cardboard slipcase
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 05/27/2014
Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) has 10,000 head of cattle that he wants to get to the beef marketers in Missouri, but in order to get there, he must travel a thousand miles from Texas across treacherous territories teaming with bandits, Indians, and the natural disasters that could plague them: swollen rivers, torrential winds and rain and with a troop of men who will naturally wear down over the months of arduous work it will take to get there. Dunson’s foster son Matt Garth (Mickey Kuhn as a boy, Montgomery Clift fourteen years later) generally goes along with his foster father even when he’s being unusually obstinate or unreasonable, but when the opportunity comes for them to cut miles off their trek and avoid dangerous highwaymen in their path by heading toward Abilene instead (where rumor has it a railroad makes it a prime market for transporting beef), Matt takes the reins of the cattle drive from Dunson and earns his father’s vow to one day catch him and kill him.
The Production Rating: 5/5
The screenplay by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee is in no hurry to get the cowboys to their destination, so there are numerous subplots as the writers delve richly into the characters both before (it takes thirty-seven minutes to get to the actual drive, time to explore Tom’s earlier years and his taking on Matt as a surrogate son) and during the drive and into their on-going relationships (either friendly or adversarial). The feisty camp cook Groot (Walter Brennan), Matt’s friendly rivalry with fast gun Cherry Valance (John Ireland), and the late, inevitable arrival (95 minutes in) of Joanne Dru’s Tess Millay who catches both Matt and Cherry’s eyes keep interpersonal relationships percolating consistently. And Hawks and co-director Arthur Rosson don’t shortchange the action either staging an incredibly realistic cattle stampede (throughout the film, the camerawork by Russell Harlan captures the enormity of the herd these men are transporting and seeing it trundle down the streets of Abilene near the conclusion is an imposing spectacle) and a later Indian attack, both of which seem all too real and yet blend these outdoor scenes with soundstage outdoor sets that nicely blend in with the location photography.
The film that has been presented on home video for many years is actually the pre-release version of the movie and not the one director Howard Hawks favored. It’s easy to see why he disliked it because its primary weakness is in its continual use as scene segues of a diary-like series of intertitles which spell out plot and emotions which we then see enacted before us. It seems redundant and almost insulting to think a viewing audience might need this kind of prompting in order to understand what’s to come. Perhaps someone in the head office felt they needed these to cover more clearly the enormous struggle and the length of time needed to get this massive job accomplished, but viewing today, these literary transitions between scenes seem quaint and unnecessarily repetitive. In the original theatrical version (also included in this release and actually comprising disc one in the set), veteran character actor (and three-time Oscar-winner) Walter Brennan narrates the film and provides verbal instead of literary segues much more in keeping with the flavorful storytelling being recounted by someone who was there for the entire saga from Tom’s early years through to the end of their st\ory.
John Wayne plays a darker and more driven version of his cowboy character here than he had ever shown before on screen, and this may have been the first irrefutable indication to many that there really was an actor buried underneath his movie star persona. 1948 was a banner year for Montgomery Clift. Between The Search which earned him his first Academy Award nomination and Red River which made him a movie star, he could hardly have asked for a better one-two punch for his introduction to movies. He’s tremendously appealing as Matt, strong without feeling the need to prove it every five seconds and altogether affable and empathetic to all, a real star-building part which he really seized and made his own. Rumor has it that Wayne was distressed that his co-star was so physically undersized compared to him, but when he watched the rushes and saw Clift not only holding his own but stealing scenes from him, he changed his tune about his co-star’s ability to hold his own in scenes. Walter Brennan does some scene stealing of his own as the ornery Groot offering reliable comedy relief and a strong shoulder for both Dunson and Matt on their arduous drive to market. John Ireland’s Cherry is an enjoyable foil for Matt as a gunslinger and rival for the love of Joanne Dru’s Tess, a part given some grit and pluck by the screenwriters and the actress’ performance (she’s no shrinking violet even if she does tend to talk too much). Other cowpokes who make memorable impressions include Noah Berry Jr., Chief Yowlachie (who has very amusing give-and-take with Walter Brennan), Harry Carey Jr., and Paul Fix.
Both versions of the film are presented in the theatrical 1.37:1 aspect ratio and with 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Apart from a couple of wayward scratches, a couple of oddly soft shots or soft focused-long shots, and a bit too much brightness in a few early sequences, this is a stellar transfer. Detail is crisp and clear with the excellent sharpness, and the grayscale features very good black levels and bright whites. Contrast is consistently maintained. The film has been divided into 27 chapters in each version.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is generally very strong. There are some occasional moments where low level hiss can be heard along with the tiniest bit of noise occasionally on the track with a little bit of shrillness in the upper registers of dialogue, sound effects, and music, but generally the drivingly relentless and memorable Dimitri Tiomkin background score and the numerous sound effects sit comfortably with the well-recorded dialogue scenes in the single track.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Each version of the movie occupies a separate Blu-ray disc and each holds its own set of bonus materials.
Special Features Rating: 5/5
Peter Bogdanovich on Red River (17:02, HD): a 2014 interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich who offers his opinions on the film, his memories of interviews with director Howard Hawks, and the explanation for the film’s two existing versions.
Howard Hawks Audio Interview (15:32): excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 interview with the director who discusses locations, his admiration for John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, his work with John Ireland, and his dissatisfaction with Joanne Dru’s work along with discussion of those two film versions and why the endings are cut differently.
Theatrical Trailer (1:53, HD)
Molly Haskell Video Essay (15:43, HD): the critic offers a video critique of the film.
Lee Clark Mitchell Interview (13:07, HD): literary and film historian offers a brief history of western novels and pulp fiction and then moves to discussing film’s great ability to capture the western motif mentioning some classics and focusing on Red River.
Borden Chase Audio Interview (10:16): interviewed by Jim Kitses in 1969, the novelist and screenwriter for Red River offers some opinions on the work and his unhappiness over the film’s ending so different from his book.
Lux Radio Theater (59:12): a 1949 episode which condenses Red River for a radio audience and features John Wayne, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan in their movie roles.
Blazing Guns on the Chisolm Trail: the 1946 serialized novel by Borden Chase is included as a paperback insert in this package.
DVDs: two DVDs containing the same content as the Blu-rays enclosed in this dual-format release package.
Twenty-Seven Page Booklet: features cast and crew lists, writer Geoffrey O’Brien’s appreciation of the film, a 1991 interview with the film’s editor Christian Nyby, and some tinted stills.
One of the greatest westerns ever made with iconic performances from great stars John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan, Red River is one of those must-see movie epics made even more precious with these excellent new high definition transfers and a bonus package of really worthwhile material. Highly recommended!
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
Support HTF when you buy this title: