Brokeback Mountain my arse! The original Gay Cowboy flick was Red River. Although todays audiences may want it all spelt out for them, in 1948 it just wasn’t on to be explicit or your film just didn’t see the light of day. But those in the know - and that surely included a goodly proportion of those in the industry, as well as fans of male-bonding films like this one - would have read the signs and smiled inwardly.
No, I don’t mean the central relationship between Tom Dunston, the want-it-all-and-want-it-now tyrant who wants his cows driven to Missouri at all costs, and his young protegé Matthew Garth who eventually stands up to him and leads a mutiny to take the cows to Abilene through safer country. That is important, but it is essentially a father-son relationship. No, I’m referring to the more discreet one between Garth and Cherry Valance, the gunslinger taken on to add extra muscle to the drive. Watch them size each other up when they meet and these days it’s impossible not to see it’s not each other’s guns they’re comparing.
As it happens, Montgomery Clift and John Ireland were rutting away together off-camera, and the wily Howard Hawks projected that into the fiction. You can probably imagine how John Wayne reacted to that, along with his sidekick Walter Brennan. Perhaps that’s what put the extra bit of fire into Wayne’s performance that had John Ford allegedly remarking to Hawks, “I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act!” He could, here, too. This is, to my mind, Wayne’s finest hour.
Howard Hawks, of course, is best-known for his wacky comedies and his strong women - Hepburn, Russell, Bacall. He makes a fine job of this more sombre work, but it doesn’t stop him weaving a thread of humour through the piece, and although this is almost entirely an all-male film, there’s a good sassy cameo for a newcomer, Joanne Dru. She never made the big time but became the staple of dozens of those Western TV dramas that I used to enjoy so much. Whatever happened to them? The Western is still what Hollywood did better than anybody and this is quite possibly the best Western of them all.