No matter what genre he worked in, Howard Hawks played by his own rules, and never was this more evident than in his first western, the rowdy and whip-smart Red River. In it, John Wayne found one of his greatest roles, as an embittered, tyrannical Texas rancher whose tensions with his independent-minded adopted son—played by Montgomery Clift in a breakout performance—reach epic proportions during a cattle drive to Missouri. The film is based on a novel that dramatizes the real-life late nineteenth-century expeditions along the Chisholm Trail, but Hawks is less interested in historical accuracy than in tweaking the codes of masculinity that propel the myths of the American West. The unerringly macho Wayne and the neurotic, boyish Clift make for an improbably perfect pair, held aloft by a quick-witted, multilayered screenplay and Hawks’s formidable direction.
Howard Hawks’ Red River receives a lavish looking 4-disc dual-format special edition from Criterion, who present both Hawk’s preferred 127-minute theatrical version and the 133-minute pre-release cut, which has been the more common version to be found on home video. On Blu-ray Criterion presents each version of the film on their own respective dual-layer Blu-ray discs with new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfers. Standard definition transfers of each version are presented on their own dual-layer DVDs. The DVD transfers have not been window-boxed.
The transfer for each version is of about the same quality, though surprisingly the shorter version, the theatrical cut, was the more problematic of the two to restore, at least according to the booklet. Though both versions are very similar to one another there are some different scenes and takes used in places, more than likely because the theatrical version loses the “book” text narration that was used throughout (the theatrical version replaces the text with voice-over narration by Walter Brennan.) It appears that for a majority of the theatrical version the pre-release version was used as the source, but the differing scenes and takes came from other sources. The opening and closing credits apparently came from a video MGM had in the archives (a better source could not be found) but thankfully the rest of the inserts and alternates come from film sources, though they do degrade in quality, coming off either a little softer, or with off contrast levels. Restoration overall for both versions has been fairly thorough, and only a few blemishes remain.
The digital transfers are both very good, delivering an excellent amount of detail. Contrast looks to be boosted a bit but dark scenes are still easy to see and details are still cleanly rendered without any crushing. Film grain is fine but still rendered cleanly, and there are no notable digital artifacts that stand out.
The DVDs present strong transfers themselves, though they’re still nowhere near as clean as the Blu-ray’s. Compression artifacts are more visible and tonal shifts in the grays aren’t as clean, but for a DVD presentation the film (both versions) still look good.
Despite a few issues due to the limitations of the source materials Criterion delivers a strong, filmic presentation.
Both versions of the film receive lossless 1.0 PCM soundtracks on the Blu-rays, while the DVDs present the audio in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. There is the usual age related concerns, including a general hollowness and a slight edge to the music, but the dialogue is clear and there isn’t any heavy damage present.
This 4-disc dual-format edition presents two dual-layer Blu-rays and two dual-layer DVDs. The menu navigation structure is the same for each format. The first DVD and the first Blu-ray both present the theatrical version of the film along with a text note about the two versions of the film. The theatrical version is about 6-minutes shorter than the more common “pre-release” version, and the primary reason for this appears to be the removal of the text narration that appears throughout, which effectively brought the action of the film to a stand-still. This is replaced by an actual voice-over narration by actor Walter Brennan. The ending is also a little big shorter, cutting out a bit of the showdown between the two main characters.
For the first feature on the set Criterion has recorded a 17-minute interview with director Peter Bogdanovich, who is a huge admirer of the film. Here he simply talks about first seeing it and the aspects of it that, to him, make it a great film, from Hawk’s use of the camera to how the dialogue seems to talk around a subject. Bogdanovich also talks about the two versions and why they exist, and references an interview he had with the director where Hawks does confirm he prefers the shorter version, feeling the longer one is too slow. Interestingly Hawks may have actually preferred the longer ending, found in the pre-release version, and only shortened it for the final theatrical version after Howard Hughes threatened a lawsuit saying Hawks stole the ending from his film The Outlaw, which Hawks was briefly attached to to direct. His comments about the two versions are intriguing, especially since he did talk to Hawks directly about it, but despite his obvious love of the film he does gloss a bit over the topics he brings up.
As a companion to Bogdanovich’s interview Criterion includes a 15-minute excerpt from the audio interview Bogdanovich conducted with Howard Hawks. This excerpt features Hawks talking about the development of Red River, shooting certain sequences, and working with his actors (he was particularly fond of Clift, who impressed the director by taking riding lessons just before filming began.) He expresses a few disappointments, like Joanne Dru’s performance at the end (he originally wanted Margaret Sheridan) and confirms the version of the film he prefers. Hawks is very honest and open, and a lot of his comments are surprising, particularly one on the film’s black-and-white photography. I would have loved to hear more, though I’m hoping maybe Criterion is saving segments for other Hawks films.
The disc then ends with the film’s theatrical trailer.
The second disc features the longer pre-release version along with a few other supplements. Molly Haskell provides a short 16-minute discussion the conventions the film broke, specifically that of gender roles and sexual politics. She looks at how the female characters, though few (there’s only two significant female characters,) are important and come off as strong as the males. She also looks at the presentation of masculinity through both the Wayne and Clift characters and how anyone who comes off as “soft” is “dispatched” with at some point.
Lee Clark Mitchell talks about the western genre in general, novels specifically, and looks at some of the various themes that appear in them. He also covers Borden Chase’s work, his novel on which Red River was based, as well as the adaptation. It’s 13-minutes but offers a great primer on the genre, from novels to screen, as well as a fascinating look at Chase’s career and work.
Criterion then provides an audio recording of a 10-minute excerpt from a 1969 interview with author Borden Chase. In the excerpt Chase talks a bit about his rather fascinating life (he used to drive around gangsters) and how he then came to writing, specifically Guns Blazing on the Chisholm Trail. He gets into the research he did for the novel and then the eventual film adaptation. He addresses a few changes he wasn’t big on (like what happens to Wayne’s character) and even talks about how Hughes came to be involved. Chase proves to be an absolutely fascinating individual and getting this brief glimpse of the man is another excellent inclusion.
Finally Criterion provides the complete 59-minute Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Red River. This radio program actually features a few members of the cast, including Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, and even John Wayne, all reprising their roles from the film. I was surprised Wayne was there, but it sounds as though he’s there primarily to promote the stage play he was in at the time, What Price Glory? Criterion also keeps all of the ads and even the “special guest” spot, featuring Margaret Sheridan (who was supposed to be in Red River coincidentally,) which actually turns into an ad for Lux soap. As to the actual play it’s an interesting adaptation that stays fairly true to the story. It’s amusing, though, when they try to fit in the actions of the characters being explained. For example, at the end, when Dunson faces off with Garth, Wayne actually explains the actions his character is performing, including taking the gun from Garth. I always enjoy the inclusion of these radio plays and this one is particularly fun.
Also, for those interested, Criterion has actually included an MP3 version on the second DVD, which you can copy onto your MP3 device (you’ll find it under the folder “Radio_Play”.)
Criterion includes one of their standard booklets, featuring an essay by Critic Geoffrey O’Brien where he writes about how the film has grown in stature over the years and gets into a little more detail about Howard Hughes and the film’s ending. Criterion also reprints an interview with editor Christian Nyby, who talks about how he came to be involved in the editing, which happened after Hawks and his team put together what was described as a rather horrible edit of the film. Also, Criterion includes Borden Chase’s 187-page novel Guns Blazing on the Chisholm Trail. It’s an entertaining read and the film remains surprisingly true to it, though there is one key difference between the two endings. It’s nice to see Criterion do this again (they haven’t included novels like this since their releases of Vampyr and The Furies almost 6 years ago.)
I was surprised at the lack of a commentary as well as the drought in material on Hawks and his career, but including both versions of the film and the source novel certainly make this the definitive release of the film, with the other supplementary material providing some added value.
Featuring strong transfers for the two versions of the film, as well as the source novel, and a good number of strong supplements, Criterion’s hefty special edition comes with a very high recommendation.