A great genre film is not necessarily a great piece of cinema, for the dictates of genre often run counter to the dictates of art; namely that genre demands familiar elements (aka clichés). As good an example of this dictum that can be found is director Howard Hawks’ 1948 (although filmed in 1946) black and white western Red River.
There is great debate amongst western aficionados as to who was the greater director of westerns, John Ford or Howard Hawks. Well, if one compares the two westerns most consider the two directors’ apexes in the genre, Ford’s The Searchers and this film, it’s no contest. Red River and Hawks win in a walk.
That’s because Hawks was basically concerned with narrative and characters while Ford obsessed over myth-making and caricatures. Even Ford tacitly admitted Hawks was the superior craftsman, for when he first saw Red River he is reputed to have exclaimed, of star John Wayne, "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act."
Both films, of course, feature Wayne in an anti-hero role, and both are sweeping tales. But Red River features realistic characterization, great dialogue, and comedy in a first rate screenplay written by Charles Schnee and Borden Chase, which was adapted from Chase’s tale The Chisholm Trail. Above all, the film benefits from the screen debut of Montgomery Clift, who steals the film from Wayne as easily as his character does the cattle herd they are driving north to sell. Note the scene where Matt steps inside a cattleman’s office in Abilene. Watch Clift’s face as he ducks, because it’s been months since he was under a roof. That’s the sort of realistic reaction that takes little effort in writing or acting, but adds up to lifting a pedestrian film into a greater realism.
For those who think the Method way of acting meant only the gonzo sorts of performances put out by Marlon Brando and James Dean, Clift punctures that fallacy with ease, for he is simply terrific and effortlessly naturalistic as Matthew Garth, the surrogate son of Wayne’s Tom Dunson, a borderline psychotic who’ll shoot a man to death as easily as other men curse. The best way to describe Clift is as a much better looking and far more talented Tom Cruise.