A while ago, I saw a cartoon picturing John Wayne in heaven; lying facedown, bashing his fists on a cloud and sobbing inconsolably. Next to him stands Saint Peter, telling another angel: ‘He’s just seen Brokeback Mountain’.
But it is more likely that Wayne responded to Brokeback Mountain with a smile of recognition. Because he starred in Red River. And Red River, that stunning, adventurous Western about the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas via the Chisholm Trail, is One Big Gay Love-fest.
Red River is also an epic old-style Western adventure-film that is well directed and mostly well acted, particularly by Montgomery Clift in his screen-debut (but not by Wayne who does his usual stoic turn, the one that Ben Affleck must be taking his cues from). Gay-overtones aside, Red River is very much a product of its time. It has a corny soundtrack, and the depiction of Native Americans is insolently politically incorrect. But considering it is in black and white and has lots of studio-footage and matte painting backdrops, producer/director Howard Hawks does remarkable things, suggesting a wide and varied landscape with it’s ocean of cattle for the story to take place in. Red River is a genuine celebration of the Western way of life and the men who lived it. As a film it is a piece of history, definitely dated, but still very watchable, holding its own as a good movie, almost sixty years after its release.
Let me just warn you now: in making my case on the homoerotic subtext of Red River, there will be spoilers. If you have not seen this film yet: please do so before reading beyond this paragraph. If you do read on before watching Red River, you do so at your own risk because I will give away huge chunks of the plot.
So, why do I think Red River is the original Gay Cowboy Movie; an epic love affair between John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson and Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth? Well:
Women are almost non existent in Red River. As a genre, the Western focuses on men, but women always exist in its fringes, as the homemaker, the damsel in distress, or the saloon-jezebel. Not so in Red River. Only two women are featured here, and they are essentially the same, minimally developed, character. They even look alike and have the same lines of dialogue, albeit somewhat paraphrased. Plus, the true function of Tess, the main female character, is verbalising the emotions and feelings between our two male leads; at the beginning of the third act, and once again at the end of the film.
The first woman is the love interest for Dunson/Wayne, but she is a quickly disposed of footnote: Dunson leaves her behind at the beginning of Red River. As a token of his true love, he gives her a bracelet that belonged to his mother, and when he takes that bracelet off an attacking Indian (still in the first 10 minutes of the movie), he finds out she has died. Later in the film, the bracelet pops up again; this time Garth/Clift is wearing it (!).
Tess is presented as a love interest for Garth. After a brief encounter, Garth gives her the bracelet, just before she too, is left behind. Subsequently she refers to the bracelet to Dunson, as something she stole from him (i.e. Dunson).
Chapter nine of the DVD: Montgomery Clift fellating a blade of grass. Need I say more?
Actually, yes I do: after the grass-sucking, Garth takes out a hand rolled cigarette, ostentatiously licks the cigarette paper and hands it to Dunson. On at least one other occasion you see Dunson and Garth sharing a smoke, their tongues and saliva touching and mixing by proxy.
The language in the script. Understandably a Western will have many gun-references. But in Red River, these are placed in an interesting context, generally just after a small intimacy like a gesture or a look. There is an ambiguous gun-reference immediately after Dunson and Garth share a cigarette and Dunson, cupping and touching Garth’s hand, exposes the bracelet. And when new character Cherry Valance appears (a young gun, obviously making eyes at Garth), he and Garth exchange their guns and do a flirtatious bit of leisurely shooting, accompanied by such lines as: ‘Can I see your gun?’ ‘Would you like to see mine?’.
In a reference to the grass-sucking scene, Tess puts her fingers near and on Garth’s mouth. Instead of acknowledging their presence, Garth talks about Dunson. And after they kiss she asks: ‘Did you like that?’. Garth’s response is worth a million: ‘I’ve always been kind of slow, making up my mind’.
There is a subplot featuring Dunson’s old ranch hand and the Native American travelling with them, behaving and bickering like an old married couple.
The fight between Dunson and Garth, near the end of Red River is not presented as a son’s struggle to be free from his father(figure), but rather as the culmination of the tension that has been building between these two men. It is here Tess (re)verbalises what we already know: ‘Everybody can see you love each other’.
When they’ve made their peace after the fight, Dunson tells Garth: ‘you better marry that girl’. Garth almost agrees, but before he does (and that question is left unanswered), Dunson and Garth take their own kind of vows: they alter the mark the cattle is branded with to include both their names; a gesture more significant than any exchanging of rings and signing of marriage certificate. Next, “The End” appears on screen.
For those of you shaking your heads and accusing me of reaching: Red River has too much overtones for them to be coincidental. If the average movie-goer such as me can pick up on it, surely Hawks did as well. And he left them in, on purpose. In fact, the infamous grass-sucking scene is enhanced by a close up that, considering the target audience for this film, was not put in for the pleasure of the attending females. Hawks and writers Borden Chase and Charles Schnee (adapting a Borden Chase story) must have been aware of what they were creating and apparently were happy to run with it, allowing for the subtext to rapidly become text. This adds another layer to an already good film and, seen more than half a century after its creation, a (rather amusing) undercurrent that in no way diminishes the movie’s original intentions, presenting this millennium’s viewer, with two movies for the price of one. A great bargain by any standards.
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