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A 1948 movie starring John Wayne, the first Western directed by (Howard Hawks). Perhaps the ultimate Cattle Drive movie, it is based on the novel The Blazing Guns of the Chisholm Trail by Borden Chase, which was previously serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. Remarkable as the first movie in which John Wayne played a character with greater depth, an aging man, and a larger-than-life borderline Ubermensch. On first seeing it, John Ford famously commented: "Hey, the S.O.B. can act!" Ford would go on to use Wayne in a similar way in The Searchers and it is perhaps significant that critics have likened the Duke's character in both these films to Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. Originally Howard Hawks wanted to cast Gary Cooper in the lead, but Cooper demanded the screenplay be changed in order to make his character more sympathetic, so Hawks offered the part to John Wayne instead. Which turned out a good thing, because not only could Wayne teach Hawks a thing or two about filming Westerns, but he also was instrumental to get the budget doubled to 1.5 million dollars.
In the prologue Tom Dunson (Wayne) and his sidekick Groot (Walter Brennan) set up a farm on the Red River in Texas. Dunson's lady love Fen is killed in an Indian attack on a wagon trek, but he picks up the sole survivor, Matt, and adopts him, using his cow as the first of germ of what is to become a giant cattle farm.
Many years later, Matt (Montgomery Clift) returns from the The American Civil War at a time when Dunson and the other farmers are in trouble because there is no buyer in Texas for their cattle. So the farmers pool their herds together for a 10,000-head drive to Missouri on what will be known as the Chisholm Trail under Dunson's leadership. Since Dunson in the prologue had not hesitated to shoot off the rightful Mexican owner of part of his land, it comes as no surprise that he runs the drive a bit harshly when times are tough. Although there are plenty of dangers and hairy moments on the drive, including a big stampede, to make this somewhat understandable, Dunson does not exactly behave rationally after a while, for instance in his outright refusal to change the direction to Abilene, which is nearer and where a new railhead has just been opened.
Things come to a head when after fording the titular Red River Dunson wants to hang two of his cowhands. The crew mutinies and the trek heads on for Abilene under Matt's leadership, leaving an injured Dunson behind. On the trail they rescue a trek of settlers from a Comanche attack, where Matt meets Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) and falls in love with her. Tom Dunson meanwhile has set off in hot pursuit with some hired gunmen, swearing to get the herd back and kill Matt. He later comes across Tess as well, who tries to dissuade him from his mad quest in vain.
After the arrival in Abilene, Matt succeeds in selling off the entire herd, but then has to face up with Tom Dunstan the following day. As Matt refuses to draw, Dunson can't bring himself to shoot him in cold blood and the showdown devolves into a fistfight, which is finally broken up by Tess. Says Dunston to Matt: "Why don't you marry the girl?"
This film shows examples of:
- Black and Gray Morality: Cherry's morality was always a little shaky until his Heel Face Turn at the end. And Mr. Dunson kept spiraling downward up until the very end.
- Camp Cook: Goot, though some may disagree.
- Cattle Baron: Dunson.
- Cattle Drive: The main focus of the film.
- Cool Train
- I'll Kill You!: Dunson tells Matt this after the mutiny.
- MacGuffin: The bracelet that Tom Dunson gives to Fen and later on Matt gives to Tess.
- The Gunslinger
- Fastest Gun in the West: Cherry wants to go toe to toe with Matt, to see who's the best.
- Rancher Tom Dunson.
- Retired Gunfighter
- The Mutiny: Red River has been described as "Mutiny on the Bounty on the prairie".
- The Narrator: Groot.
- Showdown At High Noon: subverted
- Spared by the Adaptation: Tom Dunson.
- The Western
- Young Gun: Matt and Cherry.