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Indians in Red River

Howard Hawks's Red River starring John Wayne, is considered one of the best Westerns ever. AFI rated it the fifth-best Western after The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and Unforgiven.

It may well be a top-ten Western, since there aren't that many great Westerns. But you couldn't tell that from its treatment of Indians, which sucks.

Moreover, John Wayne offers the most blatant example of Manifest Destiny that I've seen in one of his films. He's such an imperial law unto himself that he might've been practicing for his future role as Genghis Khan.

Here are the basics:

Red River (film)

Red River is a 1948 Western film giving a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. The dramatic tension stems from a growing feud over the management of the drive, between the Texas rancher who initiated it (John Wayne) and his adopted adult son (Montgomery Clift).

Wayne the colonizer
Red River begins in 1851 with would-be cattle rancher Thomas Dunson (Wayne) accompanying a wagon train through Indian Territory (Oklahoma). He looks toward Texas, sees what he considers good land, and decides he'll go there. The others warn him that it's Comanche territory, but he doesn't care. He and his pal Groot (Walter Brennan) head south.

When they're several miles from the wagon train, they look back and see smoke rising from its position. Oops! Comanches have attacked the wagon train and killed everyone in itóas a wandering boy named Matt later reveals. The stupid settlers have ventured into Indian territory, presumably without permission, and have paid the price.

Dunson and Groot set up camp near the eponymous Red River when...Comanches attack! These are your classic swarthy white men in black wigs and loincloths. Although they presumably have long-range weaponsóbows and arrows or gunsóthey run straight at Dunson with spears. Naturally, they pay for being dumber than rocks as Dunson and Groot handily defeat them. Even stray dogs know how to circle and stalk their prey, but not these idiotic Indians.

Dunson takes charge
With Matt in tow, Dunson and Groot stop on a scenic Texas plain. Who does it belong to, asks Matt. It belongs to me, declares Dunson.

By 1851, the US had annexed Texas. The state and federal governments had signed several treaties with the Comanche that theoretically established Comancheria as Indian land. But none of this is mentioned in Red River. Like a typical Euro-American colonizer, a child, or a chimpanzee, Dunson thinks he owns whatever he can touch.

Not having heard that the US won the Mexican-American War three years earlier, two Spanish gentlemen ride up. Dunson is on part of the 400 miles of land that belong to Don Diego, they inform him. Don Diego owns the land by dint of a land grant signed by the king of Spain. That's too much land, says Groot, and Dunson reiterates that the land is now his. When one of the Spaniards begins to draw his gun, Dunson kills him.

Let's recap: Don Diego has legal title to the land. Dunson is a trespasser and a squatter. When the Spaniards try to enforce their legal rights, to defend their property against theft, Dunson kills one of them. No one blinks an eye or hints at having moral qualms.

To put it succinctly, Dunson commits murder. He has no basis for claiming self-defense since he's a criminal trespasser. I wonder if this is the first time a John Wayne character has murdered someone without cause.

Dunson the tyrant
Fourteen years later in 1865, Dunson has a huge cattle ranch, but all is not well. The Texas market has dried up, so he has to transport his herd to another market. The solution is a long cattle drive.

Dunson's men round up all the cattle they can find, including some with other ranchers' brands. When the men ask if they should let the strays go, Dunson says to keep 'em. He even rebrands them as his own. So he's a cattle rustler as well as a killer.

Dunson's men sign agreements saying they'll complete the cattle drive. When one of them accidentally starts a stampede, Dunson tries to whip him like a slave. When three men try to leave, Dunson and his buddies kill them. Perhaps Dunson hasn't heard of involuntary servitude, or perhaps the 13th Amendment hasn't quite passed yet. Dunson literally declares that he's the law and he'll hang anyone who thwarts him. In addition to his previous crimes, he's now a slaveowner too.

The Indians have been quiet so far. One of Dunson's followers is the oddly-named Quo, a Cherokee who helps Groot with the grub. He's played by Chief Yowlachie, who was apparently a real Indian. Although he talks like Tonto and is played for comic relief, he gets the better of Groot in their exchanges.

Surviving an Indian attack
Finally, Matt and the others rebel against Dunson's tyranny. They leave him behind and decide not to proceed to Dunson's destination, Missouri. Instead they head for Abilene, Kansas, where they hear there's a railroad. They may encounter wild Indians, but that's less of a threat than the Missouri border gangs.

Matt and his men come across...another group of Indians attacking another wagon train. At least these Indians are smart enough to use rifles rather than spears. But their courage and conviction are questionable. When some defenders rush out from the wagon train, kneel in the open, and begin firing, do the Indians slaughter them easily? No, they turn and flee. Twenty cowboys on foot manage to drive off 100 Indians on horseback, even though a mounted warrior is generally superior to a couple of foot soldiers.

The things you learn in movies! Hondo taught us that if you break out of a circle of wagons, Indians won't attack you. Red River teaches us that if you leave your barricade and expose yourself to fire, Indians will give up and leave. No wonder the Indians lost the Indian Wars. Like the savage beasts they so obviously emulate, they have no sense of strategy.

And...that's it for the Indians. They're the usual faceless pack of ravening wolves. No, they're worse than wolves. At least wolves know how to hunt and kill. These Indians more like moths than wolves. They're attracted to you, they flutter around you, and then they die.

The rest of Red River isn't bad. In fact, the father-son conflict with Wayne as the good-bad guy make it worth watching. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

Related links
Straight shootin' with the Duke
The best Indian movies

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2008 by Robert Schmidt.

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