Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: Red River

The Story: How do you film the start of a cattle-drive?

If you're Howard Hawks in "Red River" you make it a study in contrasts. On the soundtrack are disquieting high strings and organ suggesting early morning sunrise in a black and white film. Many shots of people and cattle waiting, anticipating and watching. Then Tom Dunson, the man they've been waiting for, gallops up and surveys his empire, his task and his challenge. Hawks cuts from a medium close-up of Dunson looking behind him to what he sees. It's a slow 360° pan that takes in every cow, every man, horse and all the supplies on the other side of the rough fence that marks his property. The pan ends back on Dunson sitting tall in his saddle, craning his neck to see everything, then scratches his nose lost in thought, leans forward nervously then sheepishly realizes that the only thing stopping the drive is him—everybody's looking at him.
And with five words he lets loose the whirlwind.

"Take 'em to Missouri, Matt"

Hawks starts slowly. Cutting to the familiar three-shot of Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) and two cow-hands (one of whom is Hank Worden, a favorite character actor of Hawks, John Ford, Clint Eastwood...and David Lynch) as Matt stands in his saddle and gives the first yell to start.

Then he moves quickly, cutting closer on his cowboys to a series of extreme close-ups of his cowboys whooping and yee-hawing as they turn and then move forward to start the drive.* The last close-up is of Noah Beery Jr. and Hawks goes from his close-up to a long shot of him riding away into the sea of cows to move them along, as a bouncy trail-driving song fills the soundtrack.

Then we see Dunson and his son-in-everything-but-name Matthew Garth as they survey the start of the drive. This is the first movie where John Wayne played older than his years—his older figure, something he would do for the rest of his life.** You look at the shot and except for the lack of crag and girth, you see what Wayne will be to the end of his career. Hawks was a director of actions, not words. As Wayne tips his chin higher to survey the scene, Hawks cuts to an expansive shot of the work. Montgomery Clift casually lights a cigarette that would normally be an actor's attempt to distract from the speaker's scene. But when Dunson turns to address the young man, Matt hands his cigarette to his father-figure; the scene is a model of economically showing both their bond and their mutual independence and strength.

The only thing missing here is the soundtrack—those keening morning strings, the cascading whoops of the cowboys overlapping each other in style and tenor, and the galumphing driving song (written by Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin who had a knack for writing Western themes) that, like the entire sequence, holds a note and lets loose with an over-the-top crescendo.

When Peter Bogdanovich looked at the American Movie catalog to choose what film would be "The Last Picture Show" at the closing movie theater in Larry McMurtry's Anarene Texas, he chose this scene of leaving Texas. Couldn't have been a better choice.

The Set-Up: Tom Dunson (John Wayne) has dedicated his life to carving a cattle ranch out of the scrub of Texas, but he skipped a step. He set out, leaving behind the woman he loved (Coleen Gray) and the family he might have had. Instead, he found orphan Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn, then Montgomery Clift) wandering the desert with a cow. The two and their cook "Groot" (Walter Brennan) have spent fourteen years creating a herd that could make them rich men. Now, it's time to cash in, but Dunson's goal is daunting: Missouri.

Well, they better get started.


Dunson: Ready, Matthew?

Matt: Already.

Dunson: Take 'em to Missouri, Matt.

Matt: Yee-hah!

Groot: Alright, Quo, let's go to Missourah!

Groot: Yeehaaa...*

Groot: (Cough)

Dunson: There they are, Matt. Fourteen years of hard work.

Dunson: An' they say we can't make it.

Matt: They could be wrong.

Dunson: ...better be.

"Red River"

Words by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee (and Howard Hawks)

Pictures by Russell Harlan and Howard Hawks

"Red River" is available on DVD from M-G-M Home Video

* And Hawks puts a comic period to it by having Walter Brennan's "Groot" provide the final whoop and have it cut off by a wracking cough.

** It was "Red River" that prompted John Ford's remark to Howard Hawks "I didn't know the big sonuvabitch could act." Ford then cast Wayne as the even older Nathan Brittles in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

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