A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
When Peter Bogdanovich needed a movie to play as the final feature in the doomed small-town theater in “The Last Picture Show,” he chose Howard Hawks' “Red River” (1948). He selected the scene where John Wayne tells Montgomery Clift, “Take 'em to Missouri, Matt!” And then there is Hawks' famous montage of weathered cowboy faces in closeup and exaltation, as they cry “Hee-yaw!” and wave their hats in the air.
The moment is as quintessentially Western as any ever filmed, capturing the exhilaration of being on a horse under the big sky with a job to do and a paycheck at the other end. And “Red River” is one of the greatest of all Westerns when it stays with its central story about an older man and a younger one, and the first cattle drive down the Chisholm Trail. It is only in its few scenes involving women that it goes wrong.
The film's hero and villain is Tom Dunson (Wayne), who heads West with a wagon train in 1851 and then peels off for Texas to start a cattle ranch. He takes along only his wagon driver, Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan). Dunson's sweetheart, Fen (Coleen Gray), wants to join them, but he rejects her almost absentmindedly, promising to send for her later. Later, from miles away, Tom and Groot see smoke rising: Indians have destroyed the wagon train. Groot, a grizzled codger, fulminates about how Indians “always want to be burning up good wagons,” and Tom observes that it would take them too long to go back and try to help. Their manner is surprisingly distant, considering that Dunson has just lost the woman he loved.
Soon after, the men encounter a boy who survived the Indian attack. This is Matt Garth, who is adopted by Dunson and brought up as the eventual heir to his ranch. Played as an adult by Montgomery Clift (his first screen role), Matt goes away to school, but returns in 1866 just as Dunson is preparing an epic drive to take 9,000 head of cattle north to Missouri.