The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Red River (1948) Classic Movie Review 163

Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good... Swiss watch?

Today’s movie is Red River (1948). This movie is considered one of the classic westerns but has a strange ending. This Howard Hawks directed film was nominated for two Oscar’s but didn’t win in either category. The film is rated 7.8 on[1] and scores 100 percent on the Tomatometer and has an impressive 87 percent audience score on[2].

The great film critic Roger Ebert named the essence of the film with his quote “…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[3].” Ebert points out a few more things like that the film is rooted in classic tragedy as the son needs to kill his father to achieve manhood and the man strives to live through his son.  He also says that film critic Tim Dirks said this move parallels the “Mutiny on the Bounty” storyline.

Another Ebert quote that is appropriate is “Two men act out a fierce psychological rivalry for two hours, only to cave in instantly to a female’s glib tongue-lashing.”

What is good about this movie is the joy the men show at the beginning of the drive, which clearly influenced City Slicker (1991), the flow of cattle across the landscape, and the ease with which the men did their jobs. They worked hard and endured with their reward somewhere over the horizon.



We have a lot of returning actors beginning with John Wayne as Thomas Dunson. Wayne was covered in Episode 2 – Chisum (1970).

Montgomery Clift played Matt Garth, the adopted son of Thomas Dunson. Clift was first covered in From Here to Eternity (1953).

Walter Brennan was in the role of Nadine Groot, Thomas Dunson’s sidekick. Brennan was covered in Episode 67 – The Buccaneer (1938).

Cowhands included Harry Carey Jr. as Dan Latimer. Carey Jr. was first covered in Episode 12 – Billy the Kidd Versus Dracula (1966). Paul Fix played Teeler Yacey. Fix was first covered in  Episode 15 – The Undefeated (1969). Real cowboy Hank Worden played Simms Reeves. Worden was covered in Episode 49 – The Alamo (1960). Sometimes Frankenstein and sometimes Miss Kitty’s bartender, Glenn Strange was uncredited as Naylor. Strange was first covered in House of Frankenstein (1944).

Harry Carey was cast as Mr. Melville, the happy cattle buyer. Carey Sr. was covered in Episode 74 – Angel and the Badman (1947).

Shelley Winters had a tiny uncredited part as a dance hall girl in the wagon train they saved while on the cattle drive. Winters was covered in Episode 116 – Wild in the Streets (1968).


Joanne Dru played Tess Millay. Dru was born in West Virginia in 1922. She moved to New York in 1940. The coal mine, moonshine, or move it on down the line. She worked as a model and made it to Broadway for a short run play. Dru traveled to Hollywood with her actor husband. She was spotted by a talent scout, and her first film was Abie’s Irish Rose (1946). It didn’t work out too well. Two years later she was in the Howard Hawks directed Red River (1948) where she met her next husband, John Ireland. Dru continued with the John Wayne posse and was in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). She played opposite John Ireland in All the King’s Men (1949).

Dru was in her second John Ford film, Wagon Master (1950). This movie helped create the television series “Wagon Train” 1957-1965. She was great in the Film Noir 711 Ocean Drive (1950), Pride of the Yankees (1952), Thunder Bay (1953), and Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) but she was mostly cast in westerns. She began working in television heavily at this time. She was very active through the mid-1970s and surprisingly showed up in Super Fuzz (1980). Dru died in 1996.

John Ireland played gun handy Cherry Valance. Another tough guy American actor, born in Canada in 1914. The world just ain’t fair. He was, however, raised in New York. says he worked at a water carnival. What is that? Like the steel pier and a diving horse and a guy doing the triple Lindy. He started working in theater and eventually made it to Broadway. His first movie was the stellar World War II drama A Walk in the Sun (1945). He continued in films with dramas and westerns such as Behind Green Lights (1946), My Darling Clementine (1946), Railroaded (1947), Joan of Arc (1948) with Ingrid Bergman, and of course the John Wayne anger fest Red River (1948).

He continued with Mr. Soft Touch (1949), I Shot Jesse James (1949), and Roughshod (1949). However, my favorite is as a conflicted reporter working for a corrupt and evil politician in All the King’s Men (1949). He was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for this role.

Ireland continued with the dramas and westerns turning in solid performances in films like Little Big Horn (1951), The Bushwhackers (1951), The 49th Man (1953), The Good Die Young (1954), The Fast and the Furious (1955), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and 55 Days at Peking (1963). He also began doing more television at this time. He had a major role in Spartacus (1960) with Kirk Douglas. He continued to work until 1992. He also ran a small restaurant. Ireland died in 1992.


In 1851, Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) and his friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) left St. Louis and joined a wagon train heading west. Three weeks later they were near the border of Texas, and the land looked good. Much to the displeasure of the wagon master Dunson and Groot say they are leaving the train. They are warned that there have been signs of Indians for the last few days. Dunson says he didn’t sign on and he’s leaving to take his bull and cows with him. Fen (Coleen Gray) makes a case to go with him, but he refuses. He gives her a silver bracelet that was his mother’s.

That night they make it to the Red River. They turn and see that the wagon train has been attacked by Indians and is burning. They know it would take too long to get back to help. Dunson and Groot camp with their backs to the river and wait for the night attack. The Indians open with a flaming arrow attack but Dunson and Groot are too much for them. Dunson kills an Indian in the river, and he is wearing Dunson’s mother’s bracelet. The Indians managed to kill the two cows leaving the men with only a bull.

Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

As Dunson and Groot get ready to leave, a boy, suffering from shock, after the wagon train attack, comes in leading a cow. Dunson slaps the boy who quickdraws on him. Dunson punches him and tells him never to trust anyone. The boy says don’t ever try to take the gun away from him again.

They cross the river into Texas with one bull, one cow, and three male humans. They spend weeks traveling south until they reached the Rio Grande before Dunson decided he likes the land. Dunson says the land all belongs to him. His brand will be two lines like a river and a D. It will be the Red River brand. Before his cow is branded, the boy, Matt, says he wants his share. Dunson says he will get it when he earns it.

Two men come riding up from the south. They represent Don Diego, who rightfully owns the land. Dunson says all the land north of the Rio Grande is his by right of taking. One of the men draws, and Dunson kills the man. The other does not wish to fight. They bury the dead Mexican and Dunson reads from the Bible over him. They finish branding and turn the mighty herd of two loose.

It takes almost 14 years, but they grow a mighty herd of cattle and horses. The farm has a big house, stables, and working hands. The cemetery has grown over the years as Dunson was challenged. In 1861, the late unpleasantness began, and Matt (Montgomery Clift) spent four years away in the Confederate Army. But he is home now.

Dunson has no money because there is no cattle market in Texas as the economy is ruined. Matt wants to take the long route to Missouri to sell the cattle because of good water and few Indians. Dunson tells Groot he is not going along and the finest example of authentic frontier gibberish was filmed. Matt is now wearing the Dunson’s mother’s bracelet. Matt tells Groot that Dunson is afraid. Matt is ready to earn his place.

The drive represented in this movie is the Chisholm Trail. After the Civil War, cattle were worth about $4.00 a head in Texas and about $40.00 a head in Kansas. The rail line was extended to Abilene, Kansas and a stockyard was built. A man named Jesse Chisholm drove the first large herd from near the Red River to Kansas. Of course, John Wayne played another version of this character in Chisum (1970).

Several other groups have tried, but none have made it through. They round up all of the cattle including their neighbors. Matt goes along but doesn’t like it. One of the neighbors comes in with his hired gun, Cherry Valance (John Ireland). He and Matt are about the same caliber of gunfighters. Dunson says he will pay $2.00 per neighbor’s cattle after the drive. The neighbor accepts, and Cherry decided to work for Dunson. Matt and Cherry have a macho man gun shooting contest in what has often been considered a homoerotic scene. This movie was referenced in the documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995) that talked about homosexuality in the movies. It revolves around the line where Cherry says “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?” Also, they were supposed to tangle, but it never happened although it was talked about extensively in the film.

One of the men, Bunk, has a pension for stealing sugar from the chuck wagon. Other members of the drive crew include Buster McGee (Noah Beery Jr.), Dan Latimer (Harry Carey Jr.), Teeler Yacey (Paul Fix), Old Leather (Hal Taliaferro), Quo (Chief Yowlachie), and Simms Reeves (Hank Worden). Dunson comes into the bunkhouse, and the men all go quiet. Dunson tells them how rough it is without water, gangs, and Indians. He says everyone that signs on must finish the job. No excuses are given or taken.

At sunup, they head out with a yee-hah! Thanks, City Slickers (1991). Dunson rules the drive with an iron fist. Matt has the route fixed in his mind, and they have to face border gangs to the north. Cherry tells him that he has seen a railhead in Topeka and heard there is one in Abilene. Dunson jumps in and insists that Missouri is the goal.

They slug along the trail for a couple of weeks with no problems other than dust. Dunson says they will have to “paint” the hoof of a horse with a swollen ankle. Apparently, this is like a heat wrap that reduces swelling.

Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

Groot snaps a whip at Bunk for taking sugar from the wagon. Dunson is getting meaner and harder to deal with by the time they reach the San Sabal River. Dunson even lords over Matt. By day 30, they have reached the Brazos River. Dan is out with the herd and tells Matt and Dunson that the cattle are uneasy. Dan says he wants to buy some red shoes for his wife. Back at the wagon, the men are saying that the coyote howling is making the cattle nervous. Bunk goes to steal sugar and knocks all of the pans out of the wagon. The cattle take off in a stampede. The men ride out to stop the animals, but they run through the camp destroying stuff. Dan is killed by the herd. Another rider goes down, but Matt and Cherry get him out. Finally, the men get the cattle into a canyon where they stop running. Buster stays with the body so the coyote won’t eat him. But really, there is a lot of dead beef around that the coyote would prefer.

After finding Dan among the dead cattle, Dunson is in no mood. Groot is cleaning up at camp and Bunk knows he is responsible. Dunson and Matt will pay Dan’s wife for the full drive and get her some red shoe too. In the morning, they bury Dan and Dunson reads the Bible over him. Dunson gets Groot’s whip. Bunk draws on Dunson, but Matt shoots him in the shoulder before Dunson can kill him. Groot tells Dunson he was wrong. They send the wounded Bunk home. It seems like Cherry and Matt are heading for a fight.

Forty days into the drive, the dust has turned to rain. Dunson is still driving the men and cattle at an unstainable pace. Riding with wet cows must smell terrible. The men are all grousing about having beef every night. Teeler wants to turn back because of the short rations. Dunson says they keep going.

At 60 days, a wounded rider from another drive comes into camp. On the other side of the Red River, they were attacked by a border gang. The gang had dragged him by his neck, but he got away. The man says that a man named Jesse Chisholm had blazed a trail through the Indian Nation to Abilene and the railhead. But the man has not seen the railhead, only heard about it. Dunson says Missouri. Naylor (Glenn Strange) says he wants to quit. A few others join in. Everyone in the camp gets their guns. Naylor draws, and Groot tosses a shotgun to Dunson. Matt and Cherry fire and the three quitters are killed. Simms says why read over a man you have killed. Why try to bring the Lord in on the job? Matt chews out Dunson. Groot comes over and treats a bullet wound in Dunson’s leg.

In the morning, Dunson is told that Teeler, Laredo, and Bill Kelsey have run away. They have taken some supplies with them. Dunson sends Cherry and Grant to retrieve the three men. Dunson begins pushing the herd and men harder. They make it to the Red River. Matt wants to cross fresh in the morning, but Dunson pushes ahead.

In camp that night, the men are all tired, and Dunson is limping hard from his gun wound. Dunson is not sleeping, and he is getting more deranged. Buster and Groot talk to Matt about Dunson. Matt thinks he will be better when Cherry gets back.

In the morning, Cherry and Grant come back with two of the three quitters. Bill Kelsey has been killed. Dunson says they are thieves and that he is the law. Teeler says he wants to take the herd to Abilene and that Dunson is not the man he signed the pledge with. Dunson says he is going to hang the men instead of shooting them. Matt stands up to him and says that they will not be hanged. Dunson gets up to draw on Matt, but Cherry shoots the tongue of the wagon sending splinters into the gun hand of Dunson. Dunson goes for his gun again, and Buster shoots it away. Teeler grabs a gun and Matt slaps him. He then gives him the gun and dares him to draw. Teeler thinks better of it. Matt says Teller can finish the drive and they are going to Abilene. Matt says they are taking the herd and Dunson is staying here. Dunson tells Groot to go with the herd. Cherry tells Dunson that if he wants to look for him, he will be in Abilene. Dunson calls Matt soft and says he is going to kill him. Dunson watches his life’s work walk away.

Groot and Matt are nervous that Dunson is going to show up and kill them. Groot figures he won’t be back for 18 more days. Matt is not sure about what he has done.

They find a cow killed by a Comanche Indian. They decide that Indians would be better than Dunson. They all get rifles out of the chuck wagon. Cherry and Buster are sent 10 miles ahead. Now Matt can’t sleep. It’s lonely at the top.

One day Buster comes riding in hard and says there are women and coffee ahead. They are part of a wagon train of entertainers that are heading to Nevada. Matt takes all the men and the herd to meet the girls. As they get closer, Old Leather hears gunfire. They ride forward and see the female wagon train in a circle being attacked by Comanche.

Matt goes in with four men to help. He orders the rest of the riders to attack from two directions. Leaving the herd alone will allow them to scatter, but Matt thinks it is worth the time. Matt makes it into the wagon ring. On the firing line is Tess Millay (Joanne Dru). She and Matt start verbally sparing and then she gets hit in the shoulder with an arrow.

When the rest of the men ride in Matt and the men inside the circle run out and fire. The Comanche attack is broken. After the fight, Matt removes the arrow. Then he says he has to suck out the poison. What kind of trick is that? Then Tess slaps Matt and passes out. Was that for mansplaining about the gun or for thinking she was a paid saloon girl?

That night Tess and Cherry are talking, but she only wants to know about Matt. She says she slapped him because he thought she was a saloon girl. Groot comes in and tells the story of Matt and how they came to be together.

Matt goes out to relieve Buster on herd guard. He is nervous as a sore tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Tess goes out to talk to Matt because she is already in love with him. Tess talks him into submission. She finally puts the lip lock on Matt. It’s raining, so I assume that means they had sex.

Matt comes back into camp alone and says because of the rain, they are leaving immediately. He and Groot have a short conversation before deciding that they can’t take Tess along.

Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

Somewhere to the south Dunson is coming fast with six new men. They meet up with Tess’ wagon train. The herd is eight or nine days ahead of Dunson. Tess says she will take care of Dunson. She tells him that they are eating his beef and the man that Dunson vowed to kill told her so. That’s when Dunson notices his mother’s bracelet. She says she stole the bracelet. They verbally spar and Dunson says that Matt left her. Matt leaving her behind brings back the time Dunson left Fen behind. Dunson wanted to leave a legacy to Matt. Finally, he asks Tess to bear a child for him. She agrees as long as he won’t kill Matt. She has had a gun in her sling the entire time, but Dunson saw it and had his gun ready. They both put their guns on the table and talk about love. She asks to go along with Dunson, and he agrees.

The herd pushes forward, and Matt worries that there is no railroad at the end. Finally, they hear a train whistle. The train stops to let the herd cross. They are 12 miles from Abilene. Mr. Melville (Harry Carey) rides out and tells Matt they are really happy to see the first herd. They drive them down the main street to the stockyard.

Mr. Melville, Matt, and Buster go to make a deal. Matt is shocked to be under a roof. Matt doesn’t know what price and Mr. Melville offers $20 per head. He tells them to find the top price for a lot of 500 cows, and he will buy the entire herd at that rate. Mr. Melville says the money to pay off the men will be ready that night.

Dunson, Tess, and the gang cross the railroad about four or five hours behind the herd.

Matt signs the contract and gets a check made out to Dunson. Mr. Melville thinks the check and the successful job should change Dunson’s mind. He offers to help, but Matt turns him down. Cherry and Buster shadow Matt for his protection. The rest of the crew is not far behind.

Matt goes to his hotel room, and Tess is waiting there. He pulls his gun before he knows who she is. She says Dunson is coming in at sunset. Tess is wearing all black for some reason. They get all kissy face.

In the morning, Matt comes out with Tess and Groot behind. The entire crew is nearby. Dunson and company come into town. His gang is only for backup if Matt’s guys get involved. The two groups move towards each other. Dunson dismounts and does the John Wayne walk towards Matt. Cherry knows Matt won’t shoot. He calls Dunson out, and the old man draws first. Both are hit, and Cherry is down in the street, but the wounded Dunson goes on.

Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

Dunson and Matt faceoff and Dunson demands that Matt draw. He starts shooting around Matt as he walks closer and grazes his cheek with a shot. Matt stands firm. Dunson calls him soft, pulls his gun away, slaps Matt, and then starts slapping him. Finally, Matt starts hitting the old man. They are doing a pretty good job on each other. Finally, Tess shots a gun and starts fussing at them. After she chews them out, Dunson says Matt should marry that girl. Matt asks when he is going to stop telling people what to do.

Dunson says they will add an M to the brand when they get back because Matt earned it.


Wow! Who the hell wrote this ending? The first time I saw this movie, I thought the film broke, and I missed something. Did they just run out of film and decide to wrap?

Going back to Ebert’s quote that “Two men act out a fierce psychological rivalry for two hours, only to cave in instantly to a female’s glib tongue-lashing.” I will add that poor old Cherry is gut shot so those two can get along.

Red River (1948)

Red River (1948)

Tom Dunson is changing through the movie from the Ringo Kid to Captain Ahab. One thing that Ebert caught that I missed.  I didn’t notice that he was wearing a white hat at the beginning and a black hat at the end.

World-Famous Short Summary – You can have a cow for a friend, and you can have whiskey for a friend, but if you leave the women behind, you’ll wind up drunk and kissing a cow.

I hope you enjoyed today’s show. I really appreciate you spending the time listening. You can find connections to social media and email on my site at There are links in the podcast show notes as well. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to Apple Podcast and give me a review. It really helps the show get found.

Beware the moors

[2] Rotten Tomatoes
[3] Roger

Red River (1948)

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