Old School Americana & Nostalgia


John Wayne’s Most Classic Performance Was Lost For Years

John Wayne’s Most Classic Performance Was Lost For Years

There are a lot of different performances to choose from in John Wayne‘s career but one in Red River stands out. Fans will have to look back into the 1940s to see this classic. That’s when Wayne and Howard Hawks got together to put Red River on the map.

It’s a hell of a movie, too, with Wayne playing Thomas Dunson opposite Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth. The struggle between Dunson, an almost tyrannical soul, and Garth provides quite a narrative. Wayne fans probably will tell anyone who listens that this role stretched “The Duke” a lot.

Hawks originally had a 127-minute film ready for theaters to roll. But he also managed to work up a 133-minute version, fleshing out more material and a darker ending. The ironic thing is that this longer version of Red River had been lost for years.

John Wayne’s Dunson Battles With Son

In the version seen by everyone, Dunson and his adopted son Matt get into a fight. It takes Tess, played by Joanne Dru, to mitigate an end to it all. Well, in the longer version, Dunson pushes Matt’s buttons to an almost point of no return. Dunson tells Matt to draw his gun, but he refuses. Then, Dunson shoots at Matt, causing a facial injury. This all devolves into a fistfight between both men.

Fans might be interested in seeing both versions of Red River. Wayne’s Dunson, in the original film version, heads home to Texas with some hope. Matt also goes along with Dunson, returning after some interesting adventures. Then, in the long version, there’s a sense of danger and darkness covering over Dunson.

Both endings offer powerful ways for Wayne to show his acting range. Which ending, though, did Hawks like? There are two schools of thought. Director Peter Bogdanovich said that Hawks preferred the theatrical version. It should be noted that Bogdanovich interviewed Hawks in his later years. Meanwhile, historian Gerald Mast has said that Hawks liked the longer version.

Walter Brennan Character Plays Key Role

Another commonality between the theatrical and lost versions of Red River involves Walter Brennan, who played Nadine Groot. He provided some comic relief amidst the serious scenes. Groot’s narration provided a guide for moviegoers to follow the action. It’s not surprising to see Brennan in a Wayne flick as they worked well together over the years.

But there is an interesting interaction between Groot and Matt in the lost version. Matt, still skittish after being attacked by Native Americans, talks to Groot about his fears of them always watching him. Matt also in that lost version showcases his own inner strength. He’s not about to let Dunson’s tyrannical behavior affect him at all.

Red River has received its flowers, if you will, over the years, according to Collider. From Rotten Tomatoes to late Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, the theatrical version got high marks. The American Film Institute also ranked Red River as the fifth-best Western movie ever made.

This was a real stretch for Wayne to play such a complicated character. Yet he was able to pull it off, a feat that surprised both Hawks and Wayne’s other favorite director, John Ford. In fact, Ford pushed Wayne to scour his dark side again when he directed Wayne in The Searchers.

Red River remains a must-see film for Wayne fans and even casual movie buffs, too.