Howard Hawks’ classic Western comes in two flavors: A Pre-Release version ‘narrated’ by brief journal entries, and running an extra half-reel; or in a slightly shorter theatrical cut Hawks claimed to prefer, with spoken narration from Walter Brennan’s character stitching things together. Anything Hawks said (about anything) needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt (‘fabulist’ is the nice term for him), and there are strong advocates for each version. But it should be noted that the slightly longer cut doesn’t feel a minute too long; a bit less Walter Brennan isn’t necessarily a bad thing; and (most important) the expanded ending in the so-called Pre-Release cut makes a far better case for the flawed ending. Quite the preamble!, but then, if RED RIVER is neither Hawks’ best, nor the best Western, you can make a pretty good case for it as the greatest of all Horse Operas, with a rolling natural pace, physical beauty & classic perfs that make its every dog-eared trope seem fresh & original. (Only a few soundstage ‘exteriors’ and a little process work fail to hold up.) The story of The Chisholm Trail, and the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, finds its template in (of all places) MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, with John Wayne’s Capt. Bligh thrown overboard by the debuting Montgomery Clift’s Mister Christian. (The parallels are more strikingly obvious in the BOUNTY Remake/’62, with Trevor Howard & Marlon Brando.) Wayne is in tremendous form, commanding & scary; while Clift’s sheer pleasure in playing cowboy is as contagious as his devastating charm & looks. Joanna Dru shows up near the end as a curvy deus ex machina, but Hawks strains in vain to ‘paste’ his one-of-the-boys line readings on her. Yet it hardly makes a dent in the general triumph. (In comparison, note the faded reps of the two All-Time Classics named on the film's poster.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Cocked and Loaded Department: A priceless moment of Hollywood gay subtext occurs when John Ireland & Clift show off, compare, and then fondle each other’s revolvers. (Peeing contest to follow.) This bit comes straight (if that’s the word) out of Raoul Walsh’s early Talkie Western IN OLD ARIZONA/’28, where Edmund Lowe & Warner Baxter play the same sort of game.