The Evolution of the Duke

Here's another one of those out-of-the-blue insights that I want to share.

I was sitting on the Long Island Rail Road a few days ago, listening to Tiomkin's score for Red River. It had been a long time since I had seen the film from start to finish and, like many others I suspect, I tend to forget the first scenes with John Wayne and Colleen Gray, the whole relationship between Dunston and Fen, the Indian attack, finding the boy Matthew and so on. But hearing the score in toto brought all of that back.

And that's when I flashed on someting -- not only is Red River famously the first film in which Wayne is called upon to stretch as an actor, playing older but also darker -- but it is a film that actually anticipates the trajectory of Wayne's career, the development of his on-screen persona. If you've followed his career at all closely, you may already know where this going, but follow on anyway.

In the opening scenes of Red River Dunston is essentially a more guarded version of the Ringo Kid, Wayne's character in his previous breakthrough film, Stagecoach. (For that matter, it's fundamentally the same character he plays in a long string of Republic small-A films directed by the likes of Joseph N. Kane.) The young Dunston has much of the sweet innocence of Ringo, which was, in turn, a more nuanced version of the nice young men Wayne plays in countless (mostly awful) Bs in the '30s. Ringo is a genuine naif, utterly oblivious to Dallas's allegedly sinful past even when it is inescapably trumpeted to him in Lordsburg. Wayne continues to play a version of that wide-eyed, earnest, wholesome young man in entertaining ephemera like War of the Wildcats and The Spoilers until Hawks cast him in Red River. (Actually, the young Kirby Yorke of Fort Apache is already a more complex character, albeith with the decency of the earlier figures.)

What Hawks show us in Red River is the way in which Dunston's emotional guardedness and hidden emotional wounds harden into a kind of moral scar tissue and a deeply felt paranoia. Only at the very end of the film -- yeah, I know, it's an unsatisfying, even forced ending -- can Dunston pull back of the good of posterity. If you look at the ending of Red River as a playful first draft for the ending of The Searchers, it makes some kind of perverse sense. Dunston, like Ethan Edwards can only be reintegrated into the community if he accepts a sort of symbolic emasculation. Ethan can't do that for a number of reasons we needn't go into here, but with Matthew as a surrogate son with the potential to carry on the family line in a similarly surrogate fashion, Dunston can accept his own loss of potency, with the addition of the M to the cattle brand as a metaphorical elevation of Matt to a position of equality.

But to return to my original point, Dunston's gradual transformation anticipates the direction Wayne's persona takes through the '50s and into the key works of the '60s as he hardens into a darkening middle age. Obviously it's not that far from Dunston to Ethan Edwards and The Serachers. That's not a startling insight. But if you factor in Spig Wead (The Wings of Eagles), Tom Doniphon (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and even Jacob McCanless in the pleasant but trifling Big Jake, these characters are all logical extensions of the nastier sides of Dunston's Captain Ahab-like trail boss. These are all chillingly isolate figures -- the D.H. Lawrence version of the American hero as lonely killer to a T -- whose ties to home and hearth are either destroyed or, in the case of Wead, turned into a perverse kind of prison. (I think Wings is the most underrated and under-discussed of all the Ford/Wayne films, a pivotal work whose message is so bleak that even The Searchers looks affirmative by comparison.)

All of these developments are present in Red River in a pretty well-developed state, and Hawks will make great play with them again in Rio Bravo, with Wayne's John T. Chance a negative printout of Ringo, a man who is so poisoned against femininity -- and humanity, for that matter -- that he assumes automatically that Feathers is a card cheat and a whore and will not be dissuaded from that belief until the film is almost over.

The irony of all this is that it takes Howard Hawks to restore some of the young Wayne's sweetness in a lighter, later work -- Hatari!

Go figure.

(And a quick PS; a few days after I wrote the first draft of this posting, I had the luck of seeing Red River on the Starz Westerns Channel -- nice print of the "book" version, by the way -- and it merely confirmed everything my memory told me. The film still looks both broken-backed and badly summed up, but there are so many wonderful grace notes, especially in the unlikely but entirely winning chemistry between Wayne and Clift, that it bears repeated viewing.)