Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On Cattle-Rearing

Red River (1948)/ Howard Hawks
At certain unique, yet not wholly indistinct levels, both Red River and The Searchers are about the same thing: the things a man may discover about himself while in a state of transit. Convention may define both of them as road films, therefore; but they depart from the ‘road film’ in their establishment of a fixed objective that the journey is meant to attain. In Red River, Wayne and his band must find a suitable market to sell the 9000-strong members of their cattle-herd, while in The Searchers, Wayne must retrieve a young girl from the captivity of a native Indian tribal leader. Both films are rather specifically the product of their times; even if in a wholly Hollywood-manner, i.e., in interlinked catacombs of subtexts, underlying meanings and implicit meanings. The old-timey filmmakers functioned in a manner by which they could work up a healthy pretense of the ‘paramount premise’: plot details that are presented as objects of utmost urgency, a story that requires immediate telling. But with directors like Hawks or Wilder sometimes and Welles or Huston, most of the times; details of the ‘paramount premise’ would only obscure an agenda, instead of revealing it whole-handedly. In Red River, the agenda is clearly a right-winger’s definition of ‘manliness’: that of one who brands cattle as his own, beats native Indians in gun-fights, asks a woman to bear him his son, and is involve in a consistent animalistic battle for ‘territory’. It is not the defeat of a patriarchal code as many may read it, but the upgradation of it. 

The patriarch is no-longer the Herzog-hero: borderline senile, excessively principled, a fascist commander who is played by John Wayne in the film; but a vulnerable, malleable, more centrist youngster played by Montgomery Clift – so even though Joanne Dru does a ‘Rosie the Riveter’, and becomes a representation of the post-war American woman when she points a gun at the two brawling men and tells them get their act together – the patriarch is still very much intact. There are signs, in fact, that while Clift’s young leader might seem an overhaul of Wayne’s old dictator; he is infact, only a replacement. Even as the film ends, Wayne’s Dunson does not concede his error or admit the fallibility of his ideology, but in fact, assures Clift’s Garth that their cattle will now also be branded with his initial, because apparently, he ‘has earned it.’ In that moment, the film ceases to remain about a larger theme, and instead, becomes a father-son story, with each trying to stress his ‘masculinity’. But Red River’s masculinity is peculiar too, because the greater man is not the one who draws a gun faster, but that who can rear cattle better.

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