The name John Wayne immediately evokes images of a tough, American Western hero. His character’s ooze testosterone and are considered by some the epitome of manhood. The 1948 Western Red River is a tale of masculinity that attempts to critique certain tropes of the Western genre. As I watched it I noticed a few things that represented this idea and thought I would share a few of them.
Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a rough and tough cowboy, headstrong and possessing big dreams. Montgomery Clift plays his adopted son, Matthew Garth, who wants to live up to his father’s expectations but is more softhearted than his elder. Throughout the film, Garth struggles to fulfill his father’s dream of driving cattle north to Missouri and it results in a tale of masculine power.
In one scene in particular, two men symbolically compare their masculinity. In what could also be read as homoerotic subtext, Garth and Cherry Valance compare their guns. Guns are a traditionally phallic symbol. By comparing their “guns”, they are measuring each other’s levels of toughness and strength.
As the film goes on, Dunson grows more irritable, cruel, and violent in his leadership role. This equates extreme masculine power to violence. When he exerts control, it usually involves him shooting, whipping, or wanting to hang someone. When someone disagrees with him, he sees this as threatening to his masculine control and lashes out. He sees his son as being weak, by showing a heart. Garth stops Dunson from killing men multiple times, and is essentially seen as less dominant because of it. When he finally “man’s up” and takes control of the cattle, his father threatens to kill him in order to feel less emasculated for losing his control of the group.
Later on in the film, Garth meets Tess Millay, played by Joanne Dru. She illustrates and interesting take on masculine/feminine roles. When we first see her, it is in the middle of a battle with Native Americans, and rather than cowering and screaming, she is shown shooting a gun. Even after she is shot, she doesn’t immediately faint. She manages to slap Garth in the face first. As I said early, violence can be equated to masculinity, and by shooting a gun and hitting him in the face she takes on masculine characteristics.
Millay is continuously shown taking on masculine characteristics, as well as holding on to her femininity in her way of dress and the romantic subplot involving Garth. Her character is mainly driven by love, but she isn’t a damsel. She is actually the driving character of the ending.
In the final “showdown” between Dunson and Garth, the typical masculine tropes of the Western genre are subverted. Dunson shows up to follow through with his threat to kill Garth, which would cause him to resume a dominant, masculine role. Garth, however, refuses to use his gun. Dunson is frustrated with this act, and throws both his gun and his son’s gun away, castrating himself and his son of their manhood (remember early the comparison of the guns as a way of comparing manhood). They result to a fist fight. Millay finally steps in, the only person holding a gun. This gives her control of the scene as she is holding the phallic object. She uses this masculine form of control to speak about how ridiculous their battle for masculinity is in the first place. Not only does she illustrate the stubbornness of the battle over manhood, she also speaks about a man loving another man. She symbolizes both femininity and masculinity in that moment, holding control over the scene but also expressing love.
Red River comments on the traditional ideas of masculinity in Western film that helped perpetuate myths of the American West.