- Historical authenticity refers to how closely a director attempts to replicate the historical details of the film’s period. Thus, authenticity is often superficial. Realism, on the other hand, refers to how closely a director interprets life. True depth of character, arguably, is universal and timeless. Questions arise, then, as to which elements make the greater film—authenticity or realism. To go to extremes, a film like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) pays little attention to historical authenticity but probes deeply into human character and the philosophical implications of postmodern life, while a film like Wyatt Earp (1994) maintains scrupulous historical authenticity but plays more like a documentary film than a dramatic exploration of the human experience. RED RIVER (1948). John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Dimitri Tiomkin (music), Howard Hawks (director). John Ford had been using John Wayne in his Cavalry Trilogy after World War II, so Howard Hawks decided to give Wayne a try as well in this big-budget Western that set the standard for the great classic Westerns of the 1950s. The film represents perfectly the values underlying classic Westerns. The film opens in 1851 and tells the story of the building of a cattle empire along with the first cattle drive from Texas to Abilene, Kansas. Thomas Dunson (Wayne) leaves a wagon train, and his wife (he plans to get her later), to pursue his selfish ambitions. The next day he sees smoke and learns that savages have burned the wagon train and killed his wife. Dunson’s response is puzzling. It is almost as if there is always another day. So he heads to Texas across the Red River and steals land to start a ranch, taking with him a young boy named Matt (played by Clift when the character is older) who escaped from the Indiansat the wagon train. Agents of the land’s legal owners—Mexicans with a land grant going back several generations— attempt to protect the property, but Dunson kills them and solves his problem. Dunson’s right to claim the land from the Mexicans due to his superior power is unquestioned in the film. Years later, Dunson herds cattle to market, opening up a new trail. He runs into problems at every turn. Matt, though he has been loyal to Dunson all his life, wisely and justifiably mutinies against him, along with the other men. Howard Hawks probably assumed his audience would consider Wayne’s character normative and his actions in stealing land and mistreating his men totally acceptable. Today, however, we look back on these attitudes with curiosity.As the story continues, Matt enters a superfluous relationship with Tess (Dru), primarily so that she can bear him sons. The original audience probably considered this an appropriate motive as well. Dunson and Matt fight in the end, and Matt defeats Dunson. That should be the end, but, Dunson takes his beating and pronounces Matt a man. Again, Wayne’s character is put forth as the norm, as the ultimate exemplar of masculinity. Thus, we must assume that whatever qualities Matt shows in his mutiny are subsumed in his desire to be a man, whether to please his father figure or to please his homoerotic other half. The original audience would have seen this as a great narrative of rugged individualism, of Manifest Destiny, of authority winning out, of masculinity subduing weak femininity. Postmodern viewers, however, see a side of the characters that the original audience would deny. The music by Tiomkin, particularly the haunting “Missouri” in the middle, lends majesty to the film, while WalterBrennanadds levity through his comic sidekickrole. The romance between Matt and Tess is hot and heavy, though complicated by her willingness to have Matt’s sons.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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