Red River - Classic Film Pick
The homosexual subtext in Howard Hawkes's 1948 western is a widely overlooked, yet unmistakable element, to one of the most popular examples of the genre. Significant too in the narrative, about the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, is one man's entitled sense of capitalist greed that blinds him to all ethical consideration.
John Wayne plays the film's would-be protagonist Tom Dunson. Dunson abandons a wagon train to head south into Texas with a plan to steal as much land and cattle as he can. Not even the unbridled love of a beautiful woman can stand in his way. Dunson's abandonment seals her doomed fate. With his trusted wagon driver and cook Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), the pair adopt an approval-starved boy named Matt Garth--the sole survivor of an Indian attack. Cut to 14-years later when Montgomery Clift's film debut casts him as the grown version of Matt who Dunson has mentored.
Dunson thinks nothing of stealing another man's land. If he's caught he kills the rightful owner with a snide smile on his face. Wayne's anti-hero builds his herd by re-branding thousands of cows belonging to other ranchers with his Red River "D." One lucky rival is a hotshot cowboy named Cherry Valance (John Ireland). Cherry inserts himself on the big cattle drive after his boss inexplicably forgives Dunson's poaching.
The similarly aged Matt and Cherry engage in a bonding ritual. They briefly trade pistols as a matter of introduction. Shooting at a tin can that jumps through the air allows for shared compliments. Cherry comments, "You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?" The innuendo-riddled line hangs over the story. We're told "there's gonna be trouble" between Cherry and Matt, but the dramatist's forewarning never comes to fruition. The deliberate statement lofts a query about what kind of "trouble" the author imagines, or expects the audience to imagine, for the two cowboys.
After his protégé takes the herd away from his increasingly volatile father-figure, Dunson promises to "kill" Matt. Dunson's brutal threat ushers in the cunning romantic affection of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru). Matt rescues Tess from an Indian attack after leaving Duson behind. Tess seizes the opportunity Matt she loves him at first sight. And yet Tess changes her romantic stripes when she soon after promises Dunson to bear his child during their first meeting. Tess's loudly voiced pronouncement of the "love" between Matt and Dunson resolves the drama.