Monday, September 30, 2013

Generational Clash in the Old West

Simms Reeves (Hank Worden): Plantin' and readin', plantin' and readin'. Fill a man full o' lead, stick him in the ground an' then read words on him. Why, when you've killed a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?

For the most part, John Wayne was an heroic figure.

But, occasionally, he lapsed into a darker character. He didn't explore that side of his movie persona too often, which is too bad, really, because it was an opportunity to see him as a flawed and imperfect man. Far too frequently, his movie roles portrayed him as some kind of western Superman.

He was far from that in the movie that premiered 65 years ago today — Howard Hawks' "Red River." Unlike the sort of character he was known for playing, Wayne's character in "Red River" was an unsympathetic one, clinging to old ways in spite of changing dynamics.

Set in the mid–19th century, Wayne played a frontiersman who craved the life of a Texas cattleman, and he abandoned a wagon train to pursue his dream, accompanied by Walter Brennan. His fiancee was part of the wagon train, which was targeted in an Indian raid shortly thereafter. The only survivor of the raid was a young boy who was informally adopted by Wayne.

Together, they built one of the wealthiest cattle ranches in Texas — only to see its value reduced to nothing following the Civil War.

His fiancee's death had left Wayne's character embittered and destroyed any hope that he could find happiness in his new life.

Most westerns up to this time — and, certainly, most of Wayne's movies — had an inspirational quality to them. "Red River" had a sharp edge, a gritty quality to it.

I've heard "Red River" described as a "Mutiny on the Bounty" set in Big Sky country, and that isn't a bad comparison.

Upon the return of his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift, from the war, Wayne's character decided to move his cattle about 1,000 miles to the north, to Missouri where beef markets could be found, but en route to Missouri there were gangs and Indians.

Wayne was able to keep his men in line as long as Clift backed him up, but there came a time when Wayne stepped over the line and Clift challenged him.

It was the familiar clash between the old generation and the new. Clift represented a willingness to embrace change while Wayne resisted.

It's a conflict that has been played out countless times on the big screen and in real life.

Clift seized the herd and made for Kansas, where there was a new railroad to Missouri.

If it wasn't the first time Wayne played against type, it was one of the first times — and it wouldn't be the last. I'm sure it must have been a bit of a shock for moviegoers who weren't accustomed to seeing Wayne in that kind of role.

In many ways, though, the role Wayne played in "Red River" was the perfect preparation for the role he would play in John Ford's "The Searchers" eight years later.