Red River (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) – Howard Hawks’ 1948 ‘Mutiny on the Prairie’ is a frontier epic, the sweeping tale of a journey that can’t be made and the story of a son forced to battle the father he loves and adores. Monty Clift made his film debut opposite grand old icon John Wayne, playing the adopted son of the self-made cattle baron, and the opposition of acting styles is electric: laconic elder statesman Wayne wearing his character like buckskin, dominating the screen as upstart method actor Clift’s intensity burns a star right next to him.
Hawks’ style leans more to Wayne: measured and easy-going, he seems to let the characters take the story along with them, but behind that easy pace is a tale of madness, betrayal and vengeance that heats to a simmer under the sun of the parched prairie. “I never knew the big sonofabitch could act,” remarked Ford upon seeing Wayne’s performance, and he started casting Wayne in more complex and mature roles. But Clift was the real revelation and his internalized, psychologically-driven approach arguably pushed Wayne to reach for colors he’d never brought to a role before. The release was delayed while Hawks fought a legal battle with Howard Hughes, who claimed the film was similar to his own The Outlaw. Hughes lost but in the meantime Clift made The Search, which beat Red River to theaters and earned Clift his first Oscar nomination.
There are two versions of Red River and the longer pre-release version, which features “diary pages” of exposition between scenes and minute or two of additional footage, has been the version on previous home video releases. Hawks himself has said that he prefers the theatrical release, with runs 127 minutes (six minutes shorter than the pre-release cut) and features Walter Brennan narrating in place of the journal pages, and Criterion features a new 4K digital restoration of this version as well as a 2K restoration of the longer cut on both Blu-ray and DVD.
The four-disc combo release includes both films on Blu-ray and DVD plus new video interviews with Peter Bogdanovich (discussing the differences between the two cuts) and historian Lee Clark Mitchell (on the history of the western novel and the film’s debt to the literary tradition) and a video essay by Molly Haskell. Archival supplements include audio excerpts from Bogdanovich’s 1972 interview with Hawks and an interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase. There’s a booklet featuring a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with Hawks’s longtime editor Christian Nyby, plus a new paperback edition of Chase’s original novel, previously out of print.
The defining word in the title of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is big. The 1930 drama built around a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail from the banks of the Mississippi to the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest was the first outdoor epic of the young sound era of cinema. It’s a simple story with a vast cast of characters embarking on the promise of a new start in the untamed wilderness of the American west, led by a strapping, plainspoken young scout in buckskin named Breck Coleman. And it introduced American audiences to the actor who would become one of the biggest stars to ever dominate the big screen: John Wayne, who anchors the film in his first significant screen role as Breck.
The silent cinema had presented its share of grand western epics and pioneer odysseys, among them James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) but nothing approaching that scale had yet been attempted since the transition to the talkies. Walsh had already embarked on Hollywood’s first outdoor western with In Old Arizona (1928), but he had to hand the directorial reins of that film over to another when he lost his left eye in a freak automobile accident; a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of his car and he lost his left eye to the shattered glass. He was determined to make The Big Trail his own and he had big ideas for the film.
John Wayne was a busy actor in the 1930s. After taking his first lead in the epic The Big Trail (1930), an ambitious early sound western that became an expensive failure for Fox, the strapping young actor was tried out in college films, sports movies, dramas, and comedies, but it was in westerns and action films where he found the success. He quickly established himself as a reliable young hero in dozens of low budget westerns, most of which ran under an hour. The double feature was coming into popularity and westerns were an inexpensive way to get a second movie on the bill, or even play top of the bill in rural theaters.
Monogram was just the company to supply those films and in 1933 they hired Wayne to an eight-picture deal. Sagebrush Trail (1933) was his second picture for Monogram.
John Wayne was still paying his dues as a leading man when he made Tall in the Saddle (1944). 1939’s Stagecoach had made him a star after a decade of headlining B-westerns, but he was under contract to Republic, which was still a “poverty row” studio that made its money on B-movies. With a budding star in its stable, Republic cashed in by casting him in one western after another, with a smattering of action and war films tossed into the mix. Budgets increased and production values improved, but most were still being cranked out at a rapid rate. With few exceptions, his best films in the years following Stagecoach — The Long Voyage Home (1940) for John Ford, Reap the Wild Wind (1942) for Cecil B. DeMille, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh (both 1942) with Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott — were made for other studios.
Tall in the Saddle, Wayne’s second film in a six-picture deal with RKO, is a classic western tale of the stalwart hero who stands up against corruption and injustice, the old west version of a knight errant. It’s arguably his best western since Stagecoach and it even references that breakthrough as Wayne enters the film by hitching a ride at a stage stop. Five years later, Wayne is older and more confident and it shows in his portrayal of Rocklin, a decent, modest cowboy with a rustic but respectful manner, a respect for cussed old frontier survivors like stage driver Dave (George ‘Gabby’ Hayes), and the strength and spine to stand up to bullies without even pulling a gun. While he faces down the corrupt sheriff and his minions, he develops a crush on a society girl, Clara Cardell (Audrey Long), who arrives in the same stagecoach with her disapproving spinster guardian, and strikes romantic sparks in his clashes with the fierce, feisty cowgirl Arly (Ella Raines), the beautiful and dangerous daughter of another rancher. Ward Bond, Wayne’s close friend and drinking buddy, co-stars as the jovial but ethically questionable Judge Garvey.
Hondo (Paramount) is one of John Wayne’s best westerns of the 1950s, a leathery frontier drama starring Wayne as a Cavalry scout who comes across a lonely homestead where a toughened settler (Geraldine Page) and her son await the return of her brutish husband (Leo Gordon), refusing to leave even as tensions between the Apache nation and the Cavalry heat up into war. Wayne settles into the laconic confidence he brought to his best roles of the 1950s as the wanderer who falls in love with the “plain” frontier wife all but abandoned by her scoundrel of a husband and all but adopts her son, who is eager for a father figure. With his buckskin jacket hugging him like a second skin and his feral dog by his side, Wayne looks like a man of the wilderness as he strides through the desert, a half-Indian scout apart from both the Navajo and the Cavalry who may have found a new life with this married woman.
Directed by John Farrow and adapted from a Louis L’Amour story, it was originally shot in 3-D (that accounts for the preponderance of arrows shot into the camera) but it plays better as a straight, unassuming character-based western adventure. Wayne buddies Ward Bond and James Arness play intolerant Army scouts and Michael Pate, Rodolfo Acosta, and Leo Gordon co-star.
It’s newly remastered for Blu-ray and a new DVD edition (though still not available in 3D) with all the supplements from the previous DVD release: commentary by Leonard Maltin, western historian Frank Thompson, and actor Lee Aacker, the featurette “The Making of Hondo,” profiles of screenwriter James Edward Grant and actor Ward Bond, and the brief featurettes “From the Batjac Vaults” and “The Apache,” plus an introduction by Leonard Maltin.
The 1933 programmer The Man from Monterey, one of the many low-budget westerns that the young, pre-stardom John Wayne made during his movie apprenticeship, plays on Turner Classic Movies on December 22. I wrote a brief essay for TCM.
Running under an hour, The Man from Monterey is a simple sagebrush melodrama set in 1848 California. Wayne plays Captain John Holmes, an American cavalry officer sent to coax the landowners to register their land (once part of old Mexico, now a part of the growing United States) with the new American government. Meanwhile, dastardly Don Pablo Gonzales (Francis Ford, John Ford’s older brother) is scheming to steal the Rancho Castanares, the biggest spread in the area, by convincing its owner, Don Jose Castanares (Lafe McKee), to defy the Americans as a matter of principle (and thus lose his title to the land). Just in case that scheme fails, he encourages his playboy caballero of a son (Donald Reed) to court Don Jose’s daughter, the lovely Senorita Dolores (Ruth Hall). “You know Felipe, there’s something mighty suspicious about all this,” drawls Captain John without a shred of irony to his adopted sidekick, a colorful fortune teller and barfly played with comic flair by character actor Luis Alberni (marvelous as the exasperated hotel manager Louis Louis in the 1937 Easy Living).
John Ford’s classic western is a landmark of the genre for so many reasons: mature, classically constructed and superbly directed, it made a star of John Wayne, revitalized the western genre and introduced Ford to the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley, which would become the mythic backdrop of his west. It was once nicknamed Grand Hotel on wheels but Ford’s mix of high culture, working folk and disreputable characters tossed together under the threat of Apache attack is much more egalitarian and, for all of the melodramatic potential of the personal stories that collide, human than the famous, glossy MGM melodrama. A cross-section of the high and low of the new America setting the west—from a haughty southern socialite (Louise Platt) out to reunite with her cavalry officer husband to a “dance hall girl” (Claire Trevor) driven out of town by the new, judgmental forces of morality, from an Eastern whisky drummer (the appropriately named Donald Meek) to a lovable souse of a country doctor (Thomas Mitchell) who serves as the wry commentator of the changing social fabric of the west—board the stage to Lordsburg as an Apache uprising brews on the plains.
John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the last of the passengers to be introduced but his entrance is a gift to this young actor, fresh out of his apprenticeship as a B-movie cowboy hero and handpicked for the role by the mentoring director. As the stage comes upon a lone figure on the trail, the camera rushes in to a close-up of this young cowboy, escaped from prison and hauling his saddle behind him (his horse died in the escape), and reveals a soon-to-be-star completely at ease in the desert and on the screen, waving down the audience as he waves down the coach. It’s not that Wayne is a great actor, but Ford presents him as a magnificent screen presence and Wayne communicates a sense of justice and integrity in every piece of dialogue and movement.