Gay undercurrent trickles through great `Red River'


Movies Today

December 30, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

If the all-too-sane and tasteful Brokeback Mountain has whet your appetite for a gay cowboy movie, go out now and rent or buy Howard Hawks' magnificent Red River.

Hawks couldn't resist toying with the emotions churning at the core of a homosocial world like that of cattle hands, and he sent these feelings hurtling to the surface in one hilarious milestone scene.

John Ireland plays gunman Cherry (!) Valance. After he signs up to help Tom Dunson (John Wayne) bring off the first cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, he immediately engages Dunson's foster son and right-hand man, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), in a furious bout of male bonding.

The volatile Cherry asks the preternaturally relaxed Matt, "That's a good-looking gun. ... Can I see it?"

Matt delivers the gun to Cherry - who then offers, "And you'd like to see mine?"

Cherry gives Matt's weapon the once-over, and approves: "Nice! Awful nice!" Then he focuses intently on Matt and says, "You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?"

This interchange has never failed to knock them dead at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

And the flirtation doesn't stop there. Cherry and Matt hold a shooting contest that becomes a marksmen's duet: They team up to keep tin cans hurtling from the ground and flying through the air. Walter Brennan, playing Dunson's sidekick, Groot Nadine, caps the sequence when he says, "They was having some fun - peculiar kind of fun, sizing each other up for the future."

This supremely phallic interlude is funnier and feistier than anything in Brokeback Mountain. It even became a centerpiece of the wily 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet.

Red River contains some other choice tidbits. When Matt accuses Dunson of wanting to put his brand on "every rump in the state of Texas except mine," Dunson replies, "You don't think I'd do it, do ya?"

Still, unlike Brokeback Mountain, whose claim to art and entertainment rests on its gayness, the beauty of a movie like Red River is that it has something for everyone. The gay content is like the Christian content in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: prominent in a few scenes, present as an undercurrent, but never allowed to swamp the exhilarating mesh of characters and epic sweep and action.

Dunson becomes the Captain Queeg of cattle barons, shunning people who disagree with him and shooting them for disloyalty. The same maniacal drive that compels him to conquer the wilderness also causes him to lose everything else of importance in his life. He even comes close to killing Matt, whom he's raised since boyhood. Red River is, among other things, a frontier morality play of the highest order. Only after Dunson recognizes his mistakes can he savor the victory of having gone where no cattleman ever dared to go before.

Throughout this sprawling saga, Hawks directs with a vigor and economy that achieves an offhand urgency. The prologue is an outstanding piece of heterosexual romance: Wayne's Dunson splits off from a wagon train to settle his own land, and Fen (Coleen Gray), a spunky pioneer woman, gives him a heart-rending farewell; with one speech and one kiss, she creates a character no man in his right mind would willingly leave behind.

After American Indians attack the wagon train, Dunson and Groot find young Matt (Mickey Kuhn) wandering through the sagebrush like a wraith. Matt can't stop reliving the massacre until Dunson slaps the deathly images out of his head - and then Matt draws on him! Hawks' action is almost always startling. By staying close to the people, he makes the viewer feel a part of staccato American Indian ambushes, a tense showdown with hostile Mexicans and a terrifying stampede. During a mammoth river-crossing, he seats us smack in the middle of things, right next to Groot as his chuck wagon ratchets through the water.

Much has been written about the impact Clift made in Red River, with good reason. Previously a New York stage actor, he pulled off his rugged role with a daring combination of intensity and restraint. Matt's as quiet and suave as he is quick and alert - an anomaly for Clift, who specialized in more troubled and interior characters. Red River had a more lasting influence on its other star, Wayne; it revitalized his career. Wayne had already made several great films with John Ford (Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable), but it was Hawks who toughened Wayne's image into the leathery sage of his later career.

For Wayne, this movie was a daring breakthrough; like Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he brought his character past the brink of psychosis. And for movie lovers of every sexual, racial or generational allegiance, Red River remains an irresistible horse opera.

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