“Red River” begins in 1851 Texas, where Tom Dunson (Wayne) shortly after losing his girl in an Indian massacre, comes upon the only survivor of the attack, a 14 years old boy named Matthew Garth, who Dunson adopts. Along with Tom’s companion Groot (Brennan), the three cross the Red River, and establish a cattle ranch in that remote section of Texas. The movie jumps ahead to 1866. Although Dunson now owns 9,000 head of cattle, the economy in post-Civil Texas is too poor to support a decent price for beef. Believing their herd could fetch top dollar in Missouri, Dunson, Groot and Matt (played as an adult by Montgomery Clift) hire on a group of extra men, and set out on what proves to be a grueling journey up the Chisholm Trail. Dunson drives his men very hard, deals out harsh punishment for indiscretions, and will not allow any man to quit the drive. Finally, as Dunson looks to hang two would be deserters, Matt rebels, takes control of the operation, and changes the course of the drive towards Abilene, Kansas, leaving Dunson behind. Matt knows that completing the cattle drive won’t be half as difficult as having to deal with Dunson when his adoptive father eventually catches up with him.
“Red River,” with its gunfights, cattle stampedes, Indian attacks, hangings and fistfights, has all one could want from a classic western, in addition to wonderful performances delivered by an outstanding cast. After viewing “Red River,” John Ford, who directed John Wayne in several of the Duke’s finest films, reportedly said of Wayne that “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act.” In 1990, “Red River” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and is acknowledged by the American Film Institute as the fifth best film in the western genre.