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Release Date(s)1948 (May 27, 2014)
Studio(s)MGM/United Artists (Criterion - Spine #709)
Red River tells the story of Tom Dunson (John Wayne), who after leaving a cattle drive decides to raise his own cattle on his own land. After ten years of hard work, the slipping economy of the time works against him and the only way he can make money from his cattle is to drive them across the country. Along the way, he meets a young man named Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), who he befriends, and the lad grows up to be as good as gunslinger as him; but their friendship is soon tested when the hard drive across the landscape divides them and Dunson begins to lose his grip on his morals.
Red River was directed by the great Howard Hawks, who is one of the few directors to be successful in nearly every major genre he worked in. He only did a handful of westerns, but those that he did are considered classics today. His westerns tended not to show off the landscape or be quite as poetic the way that John Ford’s did, but they seemed a little more intimate with the characters, often at eye level, with close-ups reserved mainly for very important and memorable moments. It’s what helps set Red River apart from John Ford’s work.
The film also contains a very fine cast, headed up by John Wayne, but also starring newcomer Montgomery Clift and veteran Walter Brennan. John Wayne didn’t often play villains in the many films that we was in, but while his character isn’t an out-and-out villain per se, he does lose a bit of his moral compass along the way. He’s driven to succeed so much that he will sacrifice nearly anything and everyone in order to come out on top, even the men who work under him. The long trek across the country with 15,000 cattle takes it toll on the men and there’s an eventual revolt, even by his most trusted friends.
My only real problem with the film is that the ending of the film left a bit to be desired, which landed a lot softer and a little more candy-coated than I was expecting. The film that came before it was a bit more stark and a lot more serious, and to just see our leads duke it out and have a long laugh at the end felt out of place to me. It reminded me of the ending of McLintock! in a way. But at the same time, I can’t truthfully imagine the film with a darker ending, even if I don’t totally agree with it. Despite my opinions, the film is still an all-time classic and getting it in the finest quality possible is more than welcome.
Before I get into the specifics of this release, I think a paragraph of explanation on the restoration that went into this project is necessary. On this release, you’ll find the original theatrical version of the film on disc one and the pre-release version of the film on disc two. The latter version runs a little longer, containing text transitions, which are optical book pages, instead of Walter Brennan’s voiceover in the final cut. There are also various extra shots and dialogue here and there, and a longer ending. Overall, it changes the tone of the two versions a bit. Various elements were used to create the two versions; a 35mm duplicate negative and a French 35mm composite print were scanned at 2K resolution, and a standard definition PAL DigiBeta was also utilized. Unfortunately, some of the original film elements, such as the original opening and closing titles for the theatrical version of the film, don’t exist anymore in the quality that the restoration team was searching for. The DigiBeta copy of the film, provided by MGM, was the source for the opening and closing titles. The main reason for this was because the titles on the theatrical version are different than the titles on the pre-release version, the latter of which was intact already. With all of the elements available to them, the team behind this restoration created the finest quality editions of each version of the film as possible.
All of that being said, you’ll find a very lovely set of transfers on these two discs. As I mentioned, the titles used for the theatrical version of the film are a bit lower in quality, but they’re the only real discernible elements that are questionable. If the elements had been at Criterion’s disposable, they would have used them, so we can’t fault them for not trying. The quality of the titles isn’t horrendous, nor does it stick out enormously. It’s just the lowest quality portion of both presentations. A grain structure is intact, but fluctuates at times due to the likely deterioration of the elements at hand. It’s not an overt flickering, but it is present. There are very good black levels on display, and overall, the images have a good contrast/brightness ratio. I would say there were a couple of times when I thought that things were a bit too bright, but there weren’t enough of them for it to be a major discrepancy. Image detail and clarity is exceptional, and most of the film defects, such as debris, scratches and vertical lines, are virtually nonexistent. I didn’t notice any digital no-no’s either, such as compression artifacting or edge enhancement. It’s not a perfect video presentation, but considering what the folks behind it had to work with, it’s pretty remarkable, and is a major step up in quality overall. The soundtrack, which according to the booklet that’s been included “presented similar problems,” is a single English mono track. Dialogue is clear and perfectly audible at all times, sound effects sound pretty crisp most of the time, and score always has a nice swell to it. There’s a bit of dynamic range to it, but not an overt amount of it. Nothing seems to have been done to re-engineer the soundtrack either, only to clean it up, so it sounds appropriately like an older soundtrack, but without all of the deterioration. And let’s face it, you don’t really need a 5.1 surround soundtrack for a film like this; mono is all you really need. Subtitles are also included in English for those who need them.
The supplemental material included is quite a bounty to dig through (besides the extra cut of the film, of course). On disc one (theatrical version), you’ll find some text “About the Versions;” A Film of Firsts: Peter Bogdanovich on Red River, which is an interview; audio excerpts from an interview with Howard Hawks conducted by Peter Bogdanovich in Palm Springs, California in 1972 about the film (Script and locations, River Crossing, Montgomery Clift, John Ireland, The ending, Black and white, and Two versions); and the film’s original theatrical trailer. On disc two (pre-release version), you’ll find Tensions and Traditions: Molly Haskell on Red River (an interview); Modes of Masculinity: The Western and Red River, another interview with scholar Lee Clark Mitchell; audio excerpts from a 1970 interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase conducted by western scholar Jim Kitses (Inspiration, ”I don’t collaborate”, Howard Hughes, and Staying cynical); and The Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, originally broadcast on March 7, 1949 and featuring John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and Joanne Dru in seven chapters. Being that this is a Dual-Format release, you also get two DVDs with all of the same material included. And last, but not least, is some reading material: a 28-page insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with the film’s editor Christian Nyby conducted by critic Ric Gentry, as well as a new paperback edition of the original Borden Chase novel “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail,” which was previously out of print.
To say the least, Criterion’s release of Red River may be the definitive release of the film for years to come. Howard Hawks’ film classic on Blu-ray is sure to please western fans, Criterion fans and... hell, all fans of film. It’s an excellent presentation bursting at the seams with extras and you owe it to yourself to pick it up.
- Tim Salmons