Cast: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru
Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay (Borden Chase), Best Film Editing (Christian Nyby)
SUMMARY: Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is part of a wagon train heading to California, but partway through decides to head to Texas and start a cattle ranch instead. He is joined by friend and trail hand Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), but Dunson leaves his girlfriend behind with the wagon train, telling her that he will send for her when everything is ready. Not long after their parting, she is killed in an Indian raid. While on their way to Texas, Dson and Groot find a young boy wandering through the desert, leading a cow. This boy, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift as an adult), was also part of the wagon train, and is the only survivor after the raid. Dunson decides to informally adopt the boy, and with Garth’s cow and Dunson’s own bull, start a herd of cattle. When the group gets to Texas, Dunson finds a spot he likes and declares it his. Unfortunately, he quickly learns that the land is already owned by a man who was gifted it by the King of Spain. Dunson ignores this fact, and after winning a shootout with two of the owner’s men, is allowed to take possession of the land. He decides to name his ranch the Red River D (they had crossed the Red River to get there); when Matt asks why his initial is not included Dunson promises to add an “M” when Matt has earned his partnership. Fourteen years later, Dunson has achieved his dream of having the largest cattle ranch in Texas. Unfortunately, because of the Civil War he is now broke, and has no prospect of selling his cattle in the equally-broke South. Since Matt has returned home from fighting in the war, Dunson decides to drive the whole herd, around 10,000 cattle, to Missouri. Beef prices are excellent in the North, and Dunson intends to sell his cattle at a railhead he knows of in Missouri. The trip will be long and dangerous, which Dunson warns his hands of before embarking. He also tells them that if they agree to go, they will not be permitted to leave or quit until the drive is finished. Quite a few of his own men agree to go, and Dunson hires a few outside hands, including former gunfighter Cherry Valance. The drive proves to be as difficult as expected. Not far into it, the anxious cattle begin stampeding after one of the hands accidentally knocks all the pots over (while trying to steal sugar). The men are able to stop the stampede, but lose quite a few cattle and one of the hands. Dunson is furious at the man who caused the commotion and wants to whip him. The hand tries to draw his gun on the experienced Dunson, but Matt proves faster, shooting the hand in the arm before Dunson can kill him. This diffuses the situation for the time.
One evening, Valance begins talking about a railhead he has heard of in Abilene, Kansas, which is much closer than the Missouri destination. The men are all in favor of going to Kansas instead, but when Dunson learns that Valance has not personally seen the railroad, he is unwilling to take such a big risk (thinking there might not really be a railhead there). The men don’t like this decision, and the already simmering tensions start to build as the journey continues. In the earlier stampede, one of the two chuck wagons was destroyed, and the men are left with very meager rations. When they want to stop and buy more supplies, Dunson informs him that he has no money to do so. Two of the hands take off during the middle of one night, taking a sack of flour and some ammunition with them; Dunson sends Valance out after them, and promises to lynch them when they are found. This proves too much even for the faithful Matt, and he finally speaks up. With the support of the other hands, Matt assumes control of the team nd the herd, and decides to head for Kansas. Dunson is left with his horse and some supplies in order to make it to a town, but promises to track Matt down and kill him. Matt and the others head out, and one day they find a wagon train/town that is being attacked by Indians. The hands help defend the train, and in the process Matt meets Tess Millay (Joanne Dru). The two quickly fall in love with each other, but Matt is determined to get to Kansas before Dunson can catch up with him, so he leaves the next morning. Sure enough, Dunson comes by with a new group of men he has hired only a few days later. He finds Tess and learns of her love for Matt. He also tells her that he really wants a son, since he no longer considers Matt to be one. Tess, knowing that he intends to kill Matt, offers to have Dunson’s baby if he lets Matt go, but Dunson is unable to give up his pursuit. Matt and the others finally make it to Abilene, and learn that there is a railroad there — and the townspeople have been waiting desperately for beef. He gets an excellent price for the herd, and reunites with Tess (who has come after him). Unfortunately, the party is broken up when Dunson also arrives in town. Dunson and Matt face off to duel, but while Dunson fires very close to Matt (though not hitting him), Matt refuses to draw. When Valance intercedes and gives Dunson a minor wound, Dunson resorts to using his fists, which Matt returns. This continues until Tess finally seizes a pistol and holds them both at gunpoint, ordering them to make up. Dunson and Matt are finally able to admit the love they have for each other; Dunson also tells Matt that he had better marry Tess. Finally, he broaches the idea of a new brand, that will include both a “D” and an “M”.
MY TAKE: So if you didn’t figure it out, this is basically the Western version of Mutiny on the Bounty, with a more sympathetic Captain Bligh figure. Dunson is probably bitter about his ranching dream coming to an end, what with the Civil War and all, and is desperate to get his cattle safely to Missouri and sell them, so that he has some money to live on. He becomes so obsessed with this idea (understandably so, given the stakes) that he becomes a bit of a tyrant. Some of his actions I can understand: he is unwilling to head to Abilene without knowing for sure that there is a railhead there, because that would be a huge distance out of their way if it turns out to be just a rumor. He would rather take the sure bet, even though it’s a longer trip, rather than gamble. The rations thing is also understandable, even though it sucks: the other wagon was destroyed, and there’s no money to buy supplies. Not much you can do about that. I can even understand his anger at the guy who caused the stampede, and the two that tried to desert, although I don’t agree with his intended punishments. The guy who caused the stampede is very well-aware of his culpability, and knows that the other hand’s death is on him. He doesn’t need to be whipped for that to sink in. The other two, the deserters, were warned before the trip started that it would be tough, and that Dunson wouldn’t tolerate deserters. To make matters worse, they stole provisions from the rest of the group (though what they intended to do with only a bag of flour is beyond me). To be sure, it is a really low move. However, lynching them is probably going too far. Track them down, get the supplies back, and leave them in the desert if you have to, but killing them is too harsh. Plus, it will absolutely destroy the morale of the other men. Thankfully, Matt steps in both times to smooth things over. Luckily for everybody, there really is a railhead in Abilene, and the prices for cattle are awesome. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop — I thought the guy that bought the cattle was a con artist for quite a while, because things happened so nicely and quickly. Dunson finally shows up, but happily, he realizes that he does love Matt like a son, and doesn’t have it in himself to kill the kid. He’d probably lose in a real duel, anyway, so it’s a good thing Matt’s a little more level-headed. This brings up the last part of the movie, which irritated me: why is there a “D” in the ranch name, for Dunson, but an “M” for Matt? Either use both first names or both last names.
RATING: Pretty good; classic Western.