Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) presents a patriarchal society where men live by a macho, male code that excludes women and explores the notion of what it is to be a man and how violence aids in this definition. The lack of women in this male-dominated world leads to the forming of male friendships that contain the subtext of homoeroticism. Red River consists of an on-going battle between the old, nostalgic male-dominated world, embodied by Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), versus a more progressive world, as represented by Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), that combines the old world values with compassion. Hawks’ film also uses violence and the notion of professionalism as a male refuge.
From the start of the film, Red River establishes a male-dominated world devoid of women. Dunson and Cookie, his loyal friend, decide to leave the settlers and stake out their own claim on the frontier. His love interest (Coleen Gray) appears and, despite her protest to the contrary, he excludes her from his world because the frontier is, as he puts it, "too much for a woman." She cannot go with him to tame the frontier because that does not fit into his old world values where men explore and women stay home. He is a man set in his beliefs as Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) explains to the settlers, "He's a might kept man when his mind is made up. Even you can't change him."
Dunson is a self-made man who strikes out on his own to start a cattle ranch known as the Red River in Texas with loyal friend Groot and a young boy named Matt who survived a Native American Indian attack. Ten years pass and Dunson cultivates enough cattle to sell them for a lot of money in Missouri. So, Dunson, Cookie and a grown-up Matt make the perilous journey that sees them facing Indians, bad weather and internal strife – the latter of which may be the greatest danger as Dunson becomes a hard, twisted version of his former self.
Red River is quick to establish the male code of what it is like to be a real man. Before Dunson starts the cattle drive he talks to all of his ranch hands and explains the rules that will govern the drive when he states that "Every man who signs on for this drive agrees to finish it. There'll be no quitting along the way. Not by me and not by you." Dunson is framed by himself in this scene. Only he has the power to establish the rules because he is the authority figure of this male group. Once the men sign on for the drive, they must live by Dunson's professional code of conduct.
Dunson belongs to an older time where a real man is defined in terms of getting your enemy before they get you. In Hawks' film the "enemy" takes many forms, from Native American Indians to the wild frontier that the men must navigate in order to reach their destination. When Dunson and his loyal friend leave the settlers at the beginning of the film they are attacked by Indians. Dunson efficiently guns down two of them and kills another with a knife. It is a savage scene as the two men wrestle vigorously in the water before Dunson prevails. By his way of thinking, he has proven that he is a real man because he can handle any dangerous situation.
After the brief encounter with the Indians, Dunson finally reaches the expansive area that he will turn into a prosperous ranch. He looks at the land and proudly appraises it as "Everything a man could want." Over the years, Dunson kills many men all in defense of the American Dream of conquest and taming the frontier. Dunson is clearly a man of old-fashioned sensibilities who stays fixed in his ways, refusing to change for no one, even for the woman he loves. These old world values only strengthen when he learns of her death. Dunson becomes cold and dead inside. Everything he loved is gone with her passing and he refuses to let his guard down for anyone. To fill this void, Dunson creates a male friendship with the only surviving member of the settlers: a little boy named Matt. Dunson meets Matt and after a manly display in which the boy threatens him with gun to which he slaps out of his hand, does Dunson decide that, "He'll do." Matt has been accepted into the fold. He is now part of the male-driven world.
To show compassion or emotion is to show weakness in Red River. Those who reveal a more feminine side are punished. During the cattle drive, Dan (Harry Carey, Jr.), one of the cowboys, tells Dunson and Matt his dreams of the future. With the money he will earn from the cattle drive, he plans to buy a house and a pair of red shoes that his wife always wanted. It is an emotional moment that reveals a domesticated way of life that goes against Dunson's frontier vision. This opposition is destroyed when Dan is consequently killed in the stampede. Dan is killed because he does not belong in Dunson's world. He yearns for a more docile lifestyle. However, Dunson does show some emotion when he learns of Dan's death. He tells Matt to give the money that Dan would have earned to his wife and, although he does not come right out and say it, to use some of the money to buy her a pair of red shoes.
This is a brief glimpse of Dunson's compassionate side, but it quickly disappears when he finds out who caused the stampede: Bunk Kenneally (Ivan Parry), a cowboy with an obsession for sugar. One night when he tries to steal some sugar he accidently disrupts all of the dishes. Kenneally is filmed alone by Hawks as he tries in vain to prevent the accident. By doing this, Hawks is illustrating how Kenneally, like Dan, is different from the rest of the men. He displays a feminine property in the form of his weakness for sugar and this results in the stampede that kills Dan. Dunson returns back to his cold, macho persona as he plans to whip Kenneally for his weakness. In Dunson's mind, he equates stealing sugar with the characteristics of a weak child when says, "Stealing sugar like a kid. Well, they whip kids to teach 'em better." Kenneally is no better than a child in Dunson's eyes. But Matt intervenes and spares Kenneally's life where Dunson would have killed him. This is the first real indication that Dunson's values are wrong. Matt represents the new version of what it is to be a man. He can be compassionate and still be a man.
After Matt saves Kenneally, Cherry Valance (John Ireland) comes up to him and says, "But your heart's soft. Too soft. Might get you hurt some day." Matt merely replies, "Could be. I wouldn't count on it." Matt can be kind, but he is not afraid stand up for his beliefs. It is this kindness that the men respect, while they fear Dunson's rigid work ethic, which results in Matt taking over as leader of the cattle drive when the elder man goes over the edge. This is a symbolic passing of the old world into the new. Dunson's values are no longer valid with the current times and so Matt must take his place with a modern version of manliness.
Matt represents the new version of what it is to be a man. He can be compassionate and still be a man. He can be kind, but he is not afraid stand up for his beliefs. It is this kindness that the men respect, while they fear Dunson's rigid work ethic, which results in Matt taking over as leader of the cattle drive when the elder man loses control. This is a symbolic passing of the old world into the new. Dunson's values are no longer valid with the current times and so Matt must take his place with a modern version of manliness.
An interesting adult male friendship forms between Cherry and Matt who admire each other's prowess with a gun. Cherry consistently gazes at Matt in admiration, fascinated with his gun. Hawks reinforces this friendship by framing the two men together in a shot and in doing so permeates the scene with homoerotic undertones. Cherry comments that Matt has a nice gun and that there are "only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere." Next to guns and watches, women do not rate very high in this world where male friendships are more important.
Despite the dual nature of Matt in Hawks' film, and the admission that he and Dunson "love each other," as one character observes, Red River ultimately fulfills the notion that violence and professionalism are a male refuge. Dunson finally changes his brand so that it will have Matt's initial on it as well. Dunson draws the new brand into the ground and says to Matt, "You've earned it." Hawks cuts to a shot of the new brand and the film ends. This symbolic passing of the male mantle of power from Dunson to Matt undermines the progressive nature of his character. All of Matt's actions are undermined in this moment when he symbolically becomes a man with Dunson's blessing. As a result, Red River upholds the conventions of male genres.