Red River ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Messy and busy as it is, in typical Hawks fashion -- in all the ways Ford's westerns are ambiguous and spare -- this is one of the most lyrical westerns of all, overflowing with both pure beauty and the endless, tangential complications wrought by human frailty. It's simply the story of a cattle drive and a power struggle therein, but in the best way what it's truly about is people and their many misdirections and screwups, all of them riveting. John Wayne's performance here is as profound and sublime as his work in The Searchers; in fact it feels like a prediction of Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil -- a stubborn, corruptible cad, but there are moments when the depth of his pain registers and somehow your heart moves, probably cause you're soft just like Matthew Garth (this may also be Montgomery Clift's best performance). That said, the fact by itself that the film permits Wayne to be a villain for a time makes it thrilling, and anything but routine. Production problems beset the thing; cast members disappear, conflicts get brushed off, the editing is choppy and clumsy in some scenes, and there are two cuts framed differently, one of which (the one I was able to watch, naturally) Hawks quite disliked. But its epic sweep overwhelms everything, and in fact seems enhanced by these imperfections -- except perhaps the ending, which shifts abruptly toward a comic tone that, while bracing in its audacity, seems inappropriate or at least disappointing. When Wayne began beating the shit out of Clift I thought we were heading for a real statement about the strength of pacifism and the weakness of machismo to match the impressively progressive politics elsewhere in the film (I admire the way the two major female characters call out their men for interrupting or second-guessing them; and let's be honest here, it could not be clearer that Hawks knew more about real-world romantic relationships than Ford did)... instead he fought back, and then I thought, oh I get it, he's "played the game anyway" (in the phrasing of The Chocolate War) and now is becoming a fragile macho enemy-of-the-people himself. But no, it turns out it's a gag, and they're really just buddies 4 life. The moment is so perverse I may actually admire it -- wouldn't either natural ending be hopelessly conventional? (Though I have to ask, how did Wayne escaping punishment for killing three men not posing a physical threat to him make it through with the Code?) But the problem it creates is that there's no way this finale, or perhaps any, can be as striking or revolutionary as the moment when John Wayne's hand is shot and he stands neutered and defenseless as his cattle are taken away. You don't have to break classic Hollywood cinema down in a postmodern manner to subvert its iconography; quite often, especially in the hands of somebody like Hawks, it's right there with you already.

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