Red River (1948 film)

Red River is a 1948 American western film directed and produced by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, giving a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. The dramatic tension stems from a growing feud over the management of the drive, between the Texas rancher who initiated it (Wayne) and his adopted adult son (Clift).

Red River
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHoward Hawks
Produced byHoward Hawks
Screenplay by
Based onThe Chisholm Trail
1946 The Saturday Evening Post
by Borden Chase
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
CinematographyRussell Harlan
Edited byChristian Nyby
Monterey Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
August 26, 1948[1]
Running time
133 minutes (Pre-release) 127 minutes (Theatrical)
CountryUnited States
  • English
Budget$2.7 million[2]
Box office$9,012,000[3]

The film's supporting cast features Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Hank Worden, Noah Beery Jr., Harry Carey Jr. and Paul Fix. Borden Chase and Charles Schnee wrote the screenplay, based on Chase's original story (which was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1946 as "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail").

In 1990, Red River was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Red River was selected by the American Film Institute as the 5th greatest Western of all time in the AFI's 10 Top 10 list in 2008.


Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a stubborn man who wants nothing more than to start up a successful cattle ranch in Texas. Shortly after he begins his journey to Texas with his trail hand Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), Dunson learns that his love interest Fen (Coleen Gray), whom he had told to stay behind with the California-bound wagon train with the understanding that he would send for her later, was killed in an Indian attack.

Despite this tragedy, Dunson and Groot press on. That night, Dunson and Groot fend off an attack by Indians, and on the wrist of one, Dunson finds a bracelet he had been left by his late mother, which he had given to Fen as she left. The next day, an orphaned boy named Matthew Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn and as an adult by Montgomery Clift) wanders into Dunson and Groot's camp, traumatized and babbling incoherently. He is the sole survivor of the wagon train. Dunson adopts him and ties the boy's cow to his wagon, alongside his own bull.

With only the bull and the cow, Dunson, Groot, and Matt enter Texas by crossing the Red River. They finally settle in deep South Texas near the Rio Grande. After Dunson proudly proclaims all the land about them as his own, two Mexican men appear on horseback and inform Dunson that the land already belongs to their boss, a Spanish grandee whose family held the land by patent from the King of Spain. Dunson dismisses this and, thanks to a quicker draw in a showdown, kills one of the men and tells the other to inform the Spanish don that Dunson now owns the land. Dunson names his new spread the Red River D, after his chosen cattle brand for his herd. Fatefully, he promises to add M (for Matt) to the brand, once Matt has earned it.

Fourteen years pass, and Dunson now has a fully operational cattle ranch. With the help of Matt and Groot, his herd now numbers over ten thousand cattle, but he is also broke as a result of widespread poverty in the southern United States. Due to its loss of the American Civil War, the South cannot afford Dunson's beef. Dunson decides to drive his massive herd hundreds of miles north to the railhead at Sedalia, Missouri, where he believes they will fetch a good price. After Dunson hires some extra men to help out with the drive, including professional gunman Cherry Valance (John Ireland), the perilous northward drive starts.

Along the way, they encounter many troubles including a stampede sparked by one of the men, Bunk Kenneally (Ivan Parry), making a clatter while trying to steal sugar from the chuck wagon. This leads to the death of Dan Latimer (Harry Carey Jr). Dunson wants to make an example of him by whipping him, but when Bunk draws his gun in self-defense, Matt shoots Bunk in the arm, knowing that Dunson would have shot to kill. The wounded Bunk is sent to make his way home on his own.

Continuing with the drive, Valance relates around the campfire one evening that the railroad has reached Abilene, Kansas, which is much closer than Sedalia. When Dunson confirms that Valance had not actually seen the railroad, he ignores what he regards as a rumor in favor of continuing on to Missouri. Deeper problems arise when Dunson's tyrannical leadership style begins to affect the men. One of the two chuck wagons was destroyed in the stampede, causing morale to drop as the men live on nothing but beef and roasted grain "coffee." Dunson tells the men he is broke and cannot buy more supplies, even if they turned back to get them. When he announces he intends to lynch two men who stole supplies and tried to desert, Matt rebels and takes control of the herd in order to drive it along the Chisholm Trail to the hoped-for railhead in Abilene, Kansas. Valance and Buster (Noah Beery Jr.) become his right hand men. Face to face, Dunson curses him and promises to kill him when next they meet. The drive turns toward Abilene, leaving the lightly injured Dunson behind with his horse and a few supplies. Matt and his men are well aware that Dunson will try to recruit a posse to pursue them.

On the way to Abilene, Matt and his men repel an Indian attack on a wagon train made up of gamblers and dance hall girls. One of the people they save is Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who falls in love with Matt. They spend a night together, and he gives her Dunson's mother's bracelet, evidently given to Matt by Dunson in earlier years. Eager to beat Dunson to Abilene, he leaves early in the morning, the same way Dunson had left his lady love with the wagon train 14 years before.

Later, Tess encounters Dunson, who has followed Matt's trail and now sees her wearing his mother's bracelet. Weary and emotional, he tells Tess what he wants most of all is a son. She offers to bear him one if he will abandon his pursuit of Matthew Garth. Dunson sees in her the same anguish that Fen had expressed when he left her, but he resumes the hunt with Tess Millay accompanying him.

When Matt reaches Abilene, he finds the town has been eagerly awaiting the arrival of such a herd to buy and ship it east by rail. Unknowingly, he has completed the first cattle drive along what would become famous as the Chisholm Trail. He accepts an excellent offer for the cattle and also meets Tess again. Shortly thereafter, Dunson arrives in Abilene with his posse. Valance tries to keep the two apart, but Dunson beats him to the draw, badly wounding him while Valance inflicts a flesh wound on Dunson. Dunson and Matt begin a furious fistfight, which Tess interrupts by drawing a gun on both men, shooting wildly and demanding that they realize the love that they share. Dunson and Matt see the error of their ways and make peace. The film ends with Dunson advising Matt to marry Tess, and telling Matt that he will incorporate an M into the Red River D brand as he had promised 14 years before, because he has earned it.


  • John Wayne as Thomas Dunson
  • Montgomery Clift as Matthew "Matt" Garth
  • Walter Brennan as Nadine Groot
  • Joanne Dru as Tess Millay
  • Coleen Gray as Fen
  • Harry Carey as Mr. Melville, representative of the Greenwood Trading Company[4]
  • John Ireland as Cherry Valance
  • Noah Beery Jr. as Buster McGee (Dunson Wrangler)
  • Harry Carey Jr. as Dan Latimer (Dunson Wrangler)
  • Chief Yowlachie as Two Jaw Quo (Dunson Wrangler)
  • Paul Fix as Teeler Yacey (Dunson Wrangler)
  • Hank Worden as Sims Reeves (Dunson Wrangler)
  • Ray Hyke as Walt Jergens (Dunson Wrangler)
  • Wally Wales as Old Leather (Dunson Wrangler)
  • Mickey Kuhn as Young Matt
  • Robert M. Lopez as an Indian
  • Shelley Winters as Dance Hall Girl in Wagon Train (uncredited)
  • Dan White as Laredo (Dunson Wrangler) (uncredited)
  • Tom Tyler as Quitter (Dunson Wrangler) (uncredited)
  • Ray Spiker as Wagon Train Member (uncredited)
  • Glenn Strange as Naylor (Dunson Wrangler) (uncredited)
  • Chief Sky Eagle as Indian Chief (uncredited)
  • Ivan Parry as Bunk Kenneally (Dunson Wrangler) (uncredited)
  • Lee Phelps as Gambler (uncredited)
  • William Self as Sutter (Wounded Wrangler) (uncredited)
  • Carl Sepulveda as Cowhand (Dunson Wrangler) (uncredited)
  • Pierce Lyden as Colonel's Trail Boss (uncredited)
  • Harry Cording as Gambler (uncredited)
  • George Lloyd as Rider with Melville (uncredited)
  • Frank Meredith as Train Engineer (uncredited)
  • John Merton as Settler (uncredited)
  • Jack Montgomery as Drover at Meeting (uncredited)
  • Paul Fierro as Fernandez (Dunson Wrangler) (uncredited)
  • Richard Farnsworth as Dunston Rider (uncredited)
  • Lane Chandler as Colonel (uncredited)
  • Davison Clark as Mr. Meeker (uncredited)
  • Guy Wilkerson as Pete (Dunson Wrangler) (uncredited)


Red River was filmed in 1946, copyrighted in 1947, but not released until September 30, 1948. Footage from Red River was later incorporated into the opening montage of Wayne's last film, The Shootist, to illustrate the backstory of Wayne's character. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Film Editing (Christian Nyby) and Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (Borden Chase). John Ford, who worked with Wayne on many films such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, was so impressed with Wayne's performance that he is reported to have said, "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!"[5]

Second unit director Arthur Rosson was given credit in the opening title crawl as co-director. He shot parts of the cattle drive and some action sequences.[6]

The film's ending differed from that of the original story. In Chase's original Saturday Evening Post story, Valance shoots Dunson dead in Abilene and Matt takes his body back to Texas to be buried on the ranch.

During the production and while the film was still being shot, Howard Hawks was not satisfied with the editing and asked Christian Nyby to take over cutting duties. Nyby worked about 1 year on the project. After production, the pre-release version was 133 minutes and included book-style transitions. Howard Hawks felt this version was too long, and that the inserts in the book were both difficult to read and awkward, slowing down the pace of the film. He had a narration written and called Walter Brennan in to record it. They removed the book-style transitions and, together with Brennan's narration, tightened the running time and added a beneficial character intimacy to the film. This version was briefly available for television in the 1970s, but was believed to be lost. However, it was rediscovered after a long search as a Cinematheque Francaise 35mm print and Brennan's voiceover track was restored to the movie.[7]

Before this version could be released, Howard Hughes sued Howard Hawks, claiming that the climactic scene between Dunson and Matt was taken from the film The Outlaw (1943), which Hawks had worked on with Hughes. To resolve the issue, editor Nyby and Hughes went back and forth trimming, re-cutting, and re-inserting until a compromise was reached. This final product was the original theatrical version which was released at 127 minutes. For unknown reasons, the 127-minute theatrical version, which was preferred by Howard Hawks, was lost, and it was the 133-minute pre-release version which was seen on television broadcasts and home video releases for decades. The original theatrical cut was reassembled by Janus Films (in co-operation with UA parent company MGM) for their Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD release on May 27, 2014.


The song "Settle Down", by Dimitri Tiomkin (music) and Frederick Herbert (lyric), heard over the credits and at various places throughout the film score, was later adapted by Tiomkin, with a new lyric by Paul Francis Webster, as "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" for the 1959 film Rio Bravo.[8]


Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave the film a mostly positive review, praising the main cast for "several fine performances" and Hawks' direction for "credible substance and detail." He only found a "big let-down" in the Indian wagon train attack scene, lamenting that the film had "run smack into 'Hollywood' in the form of a glamorized female, played by Joanne Dru."[9] Variety called it "a spectacle of sweeping grandeur" with "a first rate script," adding, "John Wayne has his best assignment to date and he makes the most of it."[10] John McCarten of The New Yorker found the film "full of fine Western shots," with the main cast's performances "all first-rate."[11] Harrison's Reports called the film "an epic of such sweep and magnitude that it deserves to take its place as one of the finest pictures of its type ever to come out of Hollywood."[12]

According to Variety the film earned $4,150,000 in rentals in North America in 1948.[13][14]

Red River presently holds a perfect 100% "Fresh" rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 28 reviews, with an average rating of 8.82/10.[15]

Roger Ebert considered it one of the greatest Western films of all time.[16]

This movie was the last movie shown in the 1971 motion picture The Last Picture Show.

Red River was selected by the American Film Institute as the 5th greatest Western of all time in the AFI's 10 Top 10 list in 2008.

The "Red River D" Belt Buckles

To commemorate their work on the film, director Howard Hawks had special Western belt buckles made up for certain members of the cast and crew of Red River. The solid silver belt buckles had a twisted silver wire rope edge, the Dunsen brand in gold in the center, the words “Red River” in gold wire in the upper left and lower right corners, the initials of the recipients in the lower left corner, and the date "1946" in cut gold numerals in the upper right corner. Hawks gave full-sized (men's) buckles to John Wayne, his son David Hawks, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, assistant director Arthur Rosson, cinematographer Russell Harlan, and John Ireland. Joanna Dru and Hawks' daughter Barbara were gifted with smaller (ladies') versions of the buckle. According to David Hawks, other men's and women's buckles were distributed, but he can only confirm the family members and members of the cast and production team listed above received Red River D buckles.

Wayne and Hawks exchanged buckles as a token of their mutual respect. Wayne wore the Red River D belt buckle with the initials "HWH" in nine other movies including North To Alaska, Circus World, Rio Bravo, El Dorado, McLintock!, and Rio Lobo.

In 1981, John Wayne's son Michael sent the buckle to a silversmith in order to have duplicates made for all of Wayne's children. While in the silversmith's care, it was stolen and has not been seen since. Red River D buckles, made by a number of sources, are among the most popular and sought after icons of John Wayne fans.[17]


  1. "Red River". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved May 17, 2018.
  2. HOLLYWOOD DEALS: Prospects Brighten for United Artists -Budget Runs Wild and Other Matters By THOMAS F. BRADY HOLLYWOOD.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 01 Feb 1948: X5.
  3. "Red River (1948) Domestic Box Office". Retrieved July 22, 2017.
  4. Grant, Barry Keith (2007). Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. London: Wallflower. p. 67. ISBN 978-1904764793.
  5. Nixon, Rob. "TCM Film Article; Red River". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved July 22, 2017.
  6. Nixon, Rob. "Trivia & Fun Facts About Red River". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved July 22, 2017.
  7. Red River commemorative booklet, 2014, page 27. Included as part of the Criterion Edition release.
  8. Morris, Joan (October 29, 2010). "Joan's World: Missing lyrics from 'Red River' classic". The Mercury News. Retrieved July 22, 2017.
  9. Crowther, Bosley (October 1, 1948). "The Screen in Review". The New York Times: 31.
  10. "Red River". Variety: 12. July 14, 1948.
  11. McCarten, John (October 9, 1948). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 111.
  12. "'Red River' with John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan and Joanne Dru". Harrison's Reports: 114. July 17, 1948.
  13. "Top Grossers of 1948". Variety. January 5, 1949. Retrieved July 22, 2017.
  14. "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 48
  15. "Red River". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
  16. Ebert, Roger (March 1, 1998). "Great Movie; Red River". Retrieved July 22, 2017.

Further reading

  • Pippin, Robert B. Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy (Yale University Press, 2010) 208 pp.
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