Red River opens
In 1948, nearly two years after it was made, Howard Hawks’ first western, Red River, hit theaters to resounding applause. The film was delayed due to Howard Hughes’ threats to sue because he claimed the film too closely resembled his own 1943 western The Outlaw. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther crowed, “this opus is on the way towards being one of the best cow-boy pictures ever made.” The master of the Western John Ford purportedly told Hawks after seeing John Wayne’s performance, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act." Despite being released in August, the film quickly became the year’s biggest moneymaker, pulling in over $4 million. The story, like most great westerns, was at once topical and classic. Originally written by the film’s screenwriter Borden Chase as a story for The Saturday Evening Post called “The Chisholm Trail,” the saga follows the life of Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) who, after losing his beloved to an Indian attack, adopts Matthew Gartsets, a young boy orphaned by the same attack, and proceeds to set up one the biggest ranches in Texas. The main drama takes place years later, when a grown-up Matthew (Montgomery Clift) joins Dunson on a dangerous cattle drive east. Hawks again demonstrated his uncanny talent for casting––just a few years earlier he paired Humphrey Bogart with Lauren Bacall––by putting the cranky Wayne with newcomer Clift. Not only were the two diametrically opposed politically, but when Wayne learned that Clift was gay, he exhibited outright hostility. Hawks masterfully channeled this antipathy for maximum dramatic effect making Clift’s betrayal of Wayne in the film almost palatable. And while Chase had originally intended for Clift’s character to kill Wayne, Hawks insisted on a all-out drag-down fight that would cement the characters’ love for each other.