Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Borden Chase: Red River (1949)

John Wayne as Thomas Dunson and Montgomery Clift as Mathew in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948)


His name was Thomas Dunson, born in Birkenhead across the Mersey from Liverpool, come from England God knows how. A bull of a man. A brute of a man. Thick-necked, low-jowled, with eyes that looked out at you like the rounded grey ends of bullets in a pistol cylinder. … Two mares were in the traces. Quarter mares with broad hips and heavy gaskins. Built to work; built to run. Both had been bred to the sorrel stud that followed the wagon at the end of a tie rope. Foundation stock. Dunson’s eyes watched the slow, rhythmic motions of the younger mare’s rump. Perhaps he was thinking of the colt she would drop in another six months. Perhaps not. Dunson’s thoughts were hidden things.


Ahead, the lead wagon dipped its tongue as the team moved down the grade of a dry stream bank.


In these opening sentences the book’s methodology is completely contained. Sentences are atomized into cinematic fragments. There are fine expressions which are then recycled so that we recognize them as a new epic diction. For example, we will hear a lot more of the analogy between eyes and bullet-nubs; nearly every time that Dunson reappears, in fact. And the best thing in the prose is its convincing use of what sounds like authentic cattleman’s lingo (like the wagon dipping its tongue); lingo that may, for all I know, be as sheerly invented as the epic diction.


Dunson is indeed a brute, a man without pity, a phlegmatic deadshot, a tyrant impervious to reason. He is just about redeemed by some consciousness of his place in history, a vision that is united with a nation’s destiny. Having just killed a Mexican, he muses to his adopted son:


Here I am, Mathew, and here I’ll stay. On all these lands north of the river I’ll grow beef. Food for the bellies of every man in our country. They’ll need meat, Mathew. They can’t build their cities without it. 


This 1949 copy of Red River, tying in with the release of Howard Hawks’ movie, is I think just re-titled from Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail (1946-47), the novel from which Chase himself wrote the screenplay. But for the movie Chase unwillingly substituted a happier ending that he despised; most movie-goers have agreed with him. There were quite a few other changes. The roles of Cherry Valance and green-eyed Tess are much more developed and make more sense in the book. However, this is not to imply that the book is sensible. The west envisaged in the book is as mad, almost, as the civil war from which Mathew returns. The film feels compelled to supply a shred of excuse for Dunson’s landgrabbing from the Mexicans; in the book, it is not discussed. The man went for his gun, that’s all. So many people subsequently go for their guns that the body-count rises bewilderingly in the course of everyday business; these are not enemies, they are just hired hands who question Dunson’s authority. They are always given names, but we can’t take in the names before they are dead and buried, in one of Dunson’s punitive marshallings or in fatal swirlings of the equally swollen river.


The underlying implication is that though the father must in due course give way to his less brutal son, America should reverence such fathers as this. Moralizing is inappropriate to treat the epic appetites of these rough pioneers. Yet sometimes moralizing does cross our path, for example about these sharpers who appear in the west with Clark Donegal’s migrating casino:  


Mathew glanced at Donegal’s men. They were hard hard in a vastly different manner from the trail drivers. Theirs were the eyes of the great vultures that sweep down from the skies to prey on dead things. Each man wore gloves. Each wore a gun.


Hard-working western men driven by plain desire for ownership, domination, women, money, self-preservation and sleep are OK. But these alien leeches are another matter. Texas is “Preyed upon by Northern carpetbaggers. Harried by the dreamers in Congress.”


Chase (pseudonym of Frank Fowler, 1900-1971) was a leading light of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.




By what precise route I don’t know, Chase’s epic simile about the eyes turns up again, transmuted and varied, in the radically different context of Alex La Guma’s amazing Capteown novella A Walk in the Night (1962), a crucial document in anti-apartheid literature. La Guma works his similes intensively, building new constructions out of materials taken from genre literature. Thus with the eyes.


“His eyes were small and round and brown and flat and gritty as weathered sandstone..” (Chips, proprietor of the Jolly Boys Social Club, 9)

“Under the lowered lids the eyes were hard and flat and shiny as the ends of cartridge shells...” (Chips, 9).


These eyes belong to the brutal Police Constable Raalt:


“their irises hard and shiny as plate-glass” (9)

“his grey-as-dust eyes” (9)

“his hard grey eyes” (12)

(officers like Raalt) “these men who wore their guns like appendages of their bodies  and whose faces had the hard metallic look, and whose hearts and guts were merely valves and wires which operated robots.” (12)

“Raalt’s flat grey eyes” (12)

“They saw the flat grey eyes under the gingerish eyebrows, hard and expressionless as the end of pieces of lead pipe” (12)

“his eyes like pieces of grey metal” (12)

[Online Text of A Walk in the Night]


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