Let’s take another look at what may be John Wayne’s best film.
That honor usually goes to the vehicle for the Duke’s intense performance (see below) as a righteously unhinged Civil War veteran out to avenge the kidnapping of his niece (Natalie Wood) by Comanche Indians — John Ford’s memorable 1956 western, The Searchers.
We won’t argue the point but merely suggest that Wayne’s turn in 1948’s Red River, produced and directed by Howard Hawks, deserves another careful look. Wayne plays an imperious Texas cattle baron flogging his ranch hands during a perilous and exhausting cattle drive of some 10,000 head to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail.
The picture is highlighted by Wayne’s powerful physical presence — commanding, dictatorial, arrogant and, at the finale, repentant. He rarely looked better onscreen.
The Duke (born in 1907) was in his early Forties when Red River was made, still lithe and athletic enough to qualify as a genuine leading man, and long before Wayne’s screen image as a crusty older figure set in. In any case, his performance is exceptional in Red River and all but carries the picture.
The casting of Montgomery Clift as the cattle baron’s orphaned protege, who defies the boss’ autocratic ways, was off putting to some — including Wayne. Although the Duke grudgingly admitted that costar Clift was effective in the part, he always referred to him as a “pain in the ass.” Their contrasting acting styles — Clift’s methody approach versus Wayne’s “let’s just do it” style — struck sparks. Perhaps all to the good.
In any case, Clift is very good in Red River. Wayne is unforgettable.
The cast is strengthened by the presence of Walter Brennan and Joanne Dru (see below) in the role of a feisty , independent woman who tells off Wayne at the picture’s upbeat conclusion. As the guy who shoots Wayne (the injury is not fatal) is John Ireland (with Dru below).
Dru had a knack for marrying famous husbands. Her first marriage spanning most of the Forties was to someone even more famous at the time than workmanlike actor Ireland — singer Dick Haymes. Interestingly, Dru hitched herself to Ireland just about a month after her split from Haymes.