Enshrined in the annals of American entertainment — from the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill to the dimeback novels and serialized films of the early 20th century — the Western Hero archetype has come to define and embody the role of the Masculine Hero within popular culture. The core attributes of strength, courage, vigilance, and ambition were necessities of the men tasked with expanding the American frontier westward, through virgin land plagued with the dangers of untamed nature, and the Native People who valiantly fought to preserve their world. Their robust personas have been mythologized in our American legends, idolized as great men of power and strength. The Western Hero stood as a pillar of virtue, protecting all from the abusive and devious forces of the opportunistic and morally corrupt, struggling to forge the beginnings of our modern civilization. From a modern perspective, we see how much of what was admired in the cowboys of old also represents the toxic and virulent characteristics of masculinity that persist in the men of today. The aggressive, commanding, and unrepentant attitude of the Western Hero is at once a source of condemnation and of idealized adoration, immortalized in the marred history of America’s foundation. The cinema is the chronicle of 20th century mythology, with the Western Hero propped as the golden idol of the age, a symbol of American masculinity that reflects the ideals the country represents, if not necessarily upholds.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the vast majority of celebrated Westerns were made, the towering and chiseled men of the studios were enlisted to portray these types of masculine heroes. Actors like Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, and Burt Lancaster were among the most popular at the time due to their size and ability to utilize their natural charms in an effectively commanding way. There was also a string of actors who took a more emotional approach to their characters, still preserving the machismo of the Western Hero but doing so through more kindly and approachable means. Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Glenn Ford were particularly adept at keying in on this more gentle variety of Western Hero. Even the women weren’t entirely exempt from these masculine characteristics, especially in the case of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954) where she plays an independent business woman with a loaded gun and an iron fist. But one man would come to define the image of the Western Hero more than any other, and symbolize for an entire generation the virtues of masculinity through his prevalence and carefully calculated appeal. Even today, the image of John Wayne evokes a sense of Western masculinity like no other, leaping off the screen with confidence and charisma that endures as the prevailing ideal of cocksure masculine pride.
Wayne’s first stamp on the Western genre was his starring part in the ill-fated Raoul Walsh epic, The Big Trail (1930), where he’d also adopt his now immortal persona over the overtly feminine name given to him at birth, Marion Morrison. His career flagged for nearly a decade as he continued to lead in increasingly unpopular Westerns at the poverty row studio of Republic, until 1939 where the smash success of John Ford’s Stagecoach revitalized interest in the Western genre and catapulted Wayne into superstardom, simultaneously catalyzing an actor/director partnership for the ages, which lead to many of Wayne’s greatest Western roles. But even though Ford more or less discovered Wayne and first realized his titanic potential with the star-making role of the Ringo Kid, it’s unlikely we would have seen the grace and gravitas Wayne was capable of in films like The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) without the guiding hand of director Howard Hawks. When Ford first saw the reserved and disquieted Wayne square off against the effortless nuance of rising star Montgomery Clift in the cattle drive epic Red River (1948), he boldly proclaimed, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.”
But before Hawks would continue to mold Wayne into his refined cowboy persona, he first had to add the finishing touches to his own perception of idealized masculinity. While Ford was nurturing the romantic and sensitive aspects of Wayne’s character in Stagecoach, Hawks was realizing the epitome of rugged American individualism through the stalwart characters of his adventure pilot classic, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). In the best of Hawks’ films, the winsome bravado of man is the object of reverence and destruction. It is the source of the masculine qualities one desires, but also those that make men ineffably arrogant. Only Angels Have Wings is a film defined by its adventurous spirit and romanticization of perilous danger through the avatar of thrill-seeking mail pilots in South America, who brave treacherous weather conditions in the precariously mountainous region, both to fulfill the duties of the integral service few others are capable of and for the adrenaline-fueled ecstasy of death-defying feats of aerial exploits. Cary Grant embodies the raw characteristics of the Hawksian Man: aloof to danger, capable and committed to his duty, undeniably admirable but headstrong and reckless. His roguish charm wins the heart of the girl, but not without severe reservation, as that which makes him such a paragon of masculinity is also his debilitating flaw. The duality of these characteristics, which were fermented in Only Angels Have Wings, would fully catalyse in the tyrannical disposition of Thomas Dunson in Red River. Here, the towering and fearless presence of Wayne’s cattle baron would represent the extreme end of masculine power. Uncompromising, immoveable, dictatorial, and with a penchant for violence, Dunson is the Western Hero at his most unrepentant.
To combat this extreme of masculinity, Hawks pits the virulent and implacable Dunson against the compassionate and pragmatic sensibilities of Matthew Garth, played by Montogmery Clift. Soft-spoken, emotional, and beautiful of face, Clift was an entirely new kind of actor upon his arrival in Hollywood, and just about the opposite in every conceivable way from Wayne in terms of traditional onscreen masculinity. Being the first student of the Method school of acting to emerge onto the silver screen, his emotionally grounded approach to performance would be quickly followed by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Red River would be the first project from which Clift would demonstrate this new approach to acting, and though he butted heads with both Hawks and Wayne on set, the battling dynamics of the two conflicting styles, and the differing embodiments of masculinity both men represented, would play perfectly into the signature themes of Hawks’ films, deconstructing the qualities that define a man and scrutinizing the restraints of gender expectations. Red River starts out some fourteen years before the bulk of its story takes place, with Dunson still a youthful man choosing to forge a homestead of his own in the unoccupied land between the Red River and the Rio Grande. Here, he takes on a young orphaned boy as a surrogate son and inheritor to the prospects of his ambitious settlement, who grows up to be the devilishly handsome Clift in the passing decade. At this point, the dynamic between the two men takes on many different connotations. The prevailing parental relationship still exists, as well as Dunson’s molding of Matt into becoming the next version of himself as head of the stately Red River ranch. But the boiling tensions between the overworked crew during the cattle drive, and the inevitable usurping of Dunson’s command by Matt to prevent further bloodshed at the hands of his exacting fury, evolves into a more directly competitive, and somewhat pseudosexual, relationship.
Subtextual homosexuality is not an uncommon reading in classical Westerns. The genre is rife with stories about compassionate men sharing an unspoken camaraderie between one another that often feels more intimate than the usual relationships between men. The overstated and borderline comical displays of masculinity, as previously outlined, can be seen as an overcompensation for repressed sexuality, not to mention the abundance of phallic symbols seen in the waist-strapped six-shooters of the predominant Western Hero. Red River has probably the greatest example of the kind of sexual subtext that can be read in the personal and possessive nature of guns in the Western genre: a scene in which Matt and recent hotshot recruit Cherry Valance exchange and compare pistols, admiring one another’s proficiency with the weapon most associated with male virility. Cherry is posed as a kind of rival for Matt in the film, on par with him in his capability and devotion, and just as admiring and challenging of Dunson’s authority. Their constant sizing up of one another serves as precursor to the eventual mutiny against Dunson led by Matt, with Cherry planting seeds of insubordination throughout the journey, first by suggesting they take the herd to Kansas instead of Dunson’s insistent destination of Missouri. In a way, Cherry is a stepping stone for Matt, an intermediate example of youthful masculinity that Matt must first conquer before taking on the weathered bravado of Dunson, who is all too aware of his inevitable deposing. Hawks keys us in to Dunson’s crumbling insecurity by cutting in reactions of him during the drawn out conversations between Cherry and Matt, conversations in which Matt is being incepted into ousting his paternal leader, securing confidence for himself in ways that Dunson would never allow.
Before this regime change takes place, we see the many ways Dunson undermines and questions Matt’s masculinity as a means of dominating him. The balance between affection and abasement Dunson displays towards Matt keeps him devoted and obedient. Though he treats him with long withstanding respect and adoration, Dunson is not beyond threatening Matt in an overtly emasculating exhibition when his authority is demurred over the branding of other ranchers’ cattle. As the journey drags on, the mounting insurgence by the crew against Dunson causes his ire to further increase. Although Matt supports and sympathizes with their anguish, he remains loyal to Dunson by instinctively killing the men who first begin to act against him. It is not long, however, before his sympathies erode the blind allegiance to Dunson’s tyrannical rule, as Matt soon turns the very gun he used to protect Dunson against him, finally mustering the strength to truly rebel against his oppressive leader in his final step towards masculine ascendance. As the two men begin to part ways, Dunson affirms an earlier accusation of Matt’s character by calling him soft. This supposed “softness,” meant as one final emasculating snipe before swearing cold vengeance, is actually the defining and crucial characteristic that allows Matt to rally the support of the exhausted troops. Where Dunson was self-concerned, singular in objective, and vehemently strong headed about his decisions, Matt is considerate and attentive to the overworked men of the drive, and to everyone else around him. Now possessing the authoritative command Dunson utilized to begin the arduous trek, Matt is able to succeed by coupling traditional masculine strength with the perceived feminine qualities of compassion and empathy, which Dunson rejected and ridiculed him for. But it is exactly that, the safeguarding of masculine pride, which leads to Dunson’s downfall, and the embrace of emotional vulnerability that sees Matt succeed in completing the ambitious cattle drive; the paragon of ideal masculinity is a marriage of the repressed femininity in man and the enviable merits of strength idolized by the virtues of traditional Western Hero archetypes.
The significance of masculine and feminine unity is an integral theme to most all of Hawks’ films. Red River deals with it directly in the context of men embracing their polarizing characteristics, but it is more often the women of his films that highlight this pervasive ideal. The typical Hawksian woman is a predominantly feminine character who challenges and competes with the men of the film by playing directly into stereotypically masculine characteristics. Many of Hawks’ greatest films revolve around the relationships between men and women, allowing them to compete on the same level and utilizing the implicit juxtaposition to analyze the fallacies of traditional masculinity. Such is the case in the previously mentioned Only Angels Have Wings, where Jean Arthur’s character chastises the men of the film for their reckless actions without being completely unheard. Better examples persist in Hawks’ screwball comedies, which pit the men and women against each other in farcical battle-of-the-sexes competitions. In His Girl Friday (1940), Rosalind Russell plays a fast-talking newspaper journalist who is consistently smarter and better suited for the predominantly masculine position of sensationalist story writing than all the men of the film, without sacrificing any of her feminine qualities or charm. Red River is a film inherently about the spectrum of overt and unconventional masculinity, but it utilizes the crucial role of a feminine presence to shine a spotlight on the unspoken and suppressed aspects of emotional masculinity that is the seemingly unscalable obstacle for platonic male intimacy.
Tess Milay, the central female figure of Red River, makes her first appearance more than halfway through the film, already distinguishing herself as a more capable and masculine woman of the West. She fights alongside Matt and Cherry, fending off an encircling Indian attack, loading and firing weapons just as the men do. She is assertive and forthright with Matt in their initial confrontation, one that rebuffs Matt’s aggressive dominance as the new leader of the troop, ending with a terse slap to the face. After she learns all about his complicated schism with Dunson, and sees that his macho aggression is a byproduct of the paranoia he suffers from knowing Dunson is aiming to hunt him down, and the responsibility of fulfilling the lofty expectations of the cattle drive, she seeks him out to make amends and expresses her empathy towards his emotional burden. She brazenly identifies his transparent insecurity, having surprised him in the middle of the night, shaking in fear that Dunson was lurking in the shadows. At first, Matt is defensive and dismissive towards her attempts at reaching out to him. She confides her own shared insecurities, and attests that the solution to uncertainty and apprehension lies in commiserating with others. Matt chuckles to himself and turns slightly away, clearly resistant still to allowing any kind of vulnerability for fear of actualizing Dunson’s disparaging assessment of his character. But as Tess continues to talk, and soothes Matt’s concerns of intimately exposing himself, he comes around to embrace the emotional openness Tess’ token femininity represents. By stoking the emotional flame of his altruistic sensibilities, Tess saves Matt from befalling the same fate of obsessive self absorption that led to the dissolution of Dunson’s rule. Although this renewed self assurance allows Matt to triumph in completing their impossible mission, arriving at the Kansas train station and selling their herd for a considerable profit, he is not entirely liberated from the trappings of masculine arrogance. He knows Dunson is still hot on his trail, and is resolute in his murderous intent. Everyone in town knows he’s too stubborn not to face Dunson, Tess even acknowledges how they’re too much like each other for either to back down. Their testosterone-fueled feud can only end in explosive confrontation.
Upon arriving in the town, Dunson begins his tear through the sea of cattle towards Matt: singular, vehement, and violent as ever. He first squares off with Cherry on his way towards Matt — the symbolic navel of masculinity separating the two men — whom he disposes of with utter dispassion. At first, Matt attempts to handle things pacifistically: refusing to respond to Dunson’s aggressive approach and smirking as bullets fly past his head and nick the sides of his face. Dunson calls him soft again as he proceeds to disarm him, following up with several intensive hooks to the face before Matt collapses to the ground. As Dunson attempts to lift him up to continue the mauling, Matt finally fires back with his own flurry of fists, egging on Dunson’s toxic male temperament so that they both may exorcise their masculine aggression, as hyperly virulized men are wont to do. Both men now sufficiently bloodied and beaten, the woman of Red River steps in again to end the moronic display of masculine showmanship, exposing the aggressive charade for the sham it is. “You ought to see how silly you look,” she says, “like something the cat dragged in. What a fool I’ve been, expecting trouble for days, when anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other.” In its final moments, Red River literalizes its theme of feminine sensitivity as an imperative counterbalance to masculine bravado, which will erupt into unbridled fury if not kept in check. The film needs to state this so bluntly because, as seen in the relationship of Matt and Dunson, even the most intimate of bonds between men are subject to the overwhelming emotional blinders of perpetually agitated masculine arrogance, which is an inseparable attribute from the other defining qualities of men which fostered the archetypal heroes of the age. Hawks’ deconstruction of the Western Hero as a model of emotional impotence reveals the conflicting nature of polarized emotional complexion. Held against these embodiments of romanticized masculine ego, emotional harmony is shown to be the only solution to human nature’s reliance on masculine id.