The Man and the Method, on the Way to Red River
Written by Jenn Thornton
Red River is, like its star John Wayne, an American classic. Released in 1948, this landmark addition to the Western canon is so iconic that director Peter Bogdanovich picked the name of the movie to appear on the marquee of the small Texas town in The Last Picture Show. Last picture—and one of the best, too, seven decades old this year.
In John Wayne, director Howard Hawks—working in film since the silent era—had an actor with the physicality and gravitas needed to anchor Red River. Theirs was an interesting partnership. Not yet on the Mt. Rushmore of film stars, but well on his way, Wayne had appeared in a string of popular World War II pictures and worked with John Ford; he was already a huge office draw, but teaming with Hawks meant another distinguished collaboration for Wayne. “Delighted at the prospect of working with Hawks,” wrote Todd McCarthy in the biography Howard Hawks, “Wayne was not so much concerned about Dunson’s brutal personality as about playing an older man. Hawks supposedly said, ‘Duke, you’re going to be one soon, why don’t you get some practice?’ and Wayne was won over.”
Tapping the much slighter and more sensitive Montgomery Clift to play Dunson’s mutinous adopted son Matt Garth was an inspired bit of casting. The stage-trained Clift was not yet the household name of films like A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. Despite grumblings from members in Clift’s theater camp, Clift recognized the role as possibly pivotal to his film career and accepted the part. The method actor proved equal to the task, learning to rope, ride, and shoot. Though he didn’t make much of the method—or even know what to make of it—Hawks was impressed by Clift’s commitment, enough that, “as a vote of confidence, he gave his young star an old hat that Gary Cooper had given him, its weather beaten-look was perfect for the picture,” wrote McCarthy. (To Wayne, Hawks gave a “Red River D” belt buckle—the very buckle that Duke is wearing in the sculpture at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County).
The acting styles of Wayne and Clift are as at odds as their characters in Red River—Wayne old school, Clift new school. This only adds to the films terrific tension. Rather than directing the stage-trained Clift to “compete with the big man on his own level,” wrote McCarthy, he suggested the actor “underplay his scenes with a pensive cool that Hawks was betting would contrast well with Wayne’s ferociousness and overpowering physicality.” Growing more confident, Clift was determined to show up Wayne in a scene, only to find the older actor had heeded Hawks’s direction and, in doing so, turned the tables on Clift.
“Afterward, Clift admitted to his director, ‘My big scene didn’t amount to much, did it?’ wrote McCarthy of the incident, “and Hawks told him, ‘Anytime you think you’re going to make Wayne look bad, you’ve got another thing coming.’”
With Hawks at the helm, Red River was a hit. It sits at number 5 on AFI’s Top 10 Westerns (Wayne’s other films The Searchers and Stagecoach are ranked no. 1 and 9 on the list, respectively). It was nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Writing and Editing categories and is considered one of Hawks’s most enduring films. As it turns out, Wayne had nothing to worry about in playing an older man. In fact, Duke’s legendary portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit some two decades after Red River would net him the Oscar for Best Actor.