Image Credit: ‘Red River,’ MGM

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, with cowboy romance A Strange Way Of Life now streaming on Netflix, we’re revisiting 1948’s queer-coded Western classic, Red River.

Westerns have always had a complicated relationship with queerness. It’s a genre that for centuries has embodied, and often outwardly expressed, a very traditional worldview around masculinity, gender roles, and the binary of good versus evil.

And even though that may sound diametrically opposed to the broader queer film canon, the two have long been in conversation. Westerns are movies about men being men, surrounded only by other men, trying to best one another, and expressing their affection for each other in unclear and suppressed manners. Now, tell me if that doesn’t sound familiar…?

Over the last few years, movies like Brokeback Mountain, The Power Of The Dog, or Pedro Almodóvar’s short film Strange Way of Life (which is now available to stream on Netflix) have brought to the surface the queerness that had always been not-so-quietly brewing underneath the genre. They made the subtextual overtly evident. 

But this week, we’ll take a look back at a time and a movie where these queer codes and signals still had to be read between the lines. Where there was charged meaning in a glance between two cowboys, where guns symbolized more than just weapons, and when the secret real life personas of the actors influenced the way we should be reading their relationships.

The Set-Up

1948’s Red River is considered by many one of the finest Westerns ever made—directed by Howard Hawks, and starring the poster boy of the cowboy picture, John Wayne. It tells the story of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, led by rancher Thomas Dunson (Wayne) and his adopted son and protégée Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift).

Their ranch lost everything during the Civil Wa, so they’re moving north with their men and cattle in hopes of finding a better future. In their path they encounter catastrophic stampedes, betrayal and abandonment by their own men, and Native American tribes. In the end, all is worth it as they successfully find new lands and new beginnings.

The film has a very simple plot structure, following the main characters from point A to point B, and has them go through a series of obstacles that test their endurance and resilience, both emotional and physical. It’s a classic battle of men versus nature, and man versus man.

The Odd Couple

However, the true central tension of the film exists between Dunson and Garth, the two men leading this cattle drive. Dunson is the embodiment of a self-made cowboy; a man that will do everything and anything it takes to protect the legacy that he has built for himself, and is not afraid to fight or kill for it.

Garth, on the other hand, has a much more emotional approach to the endeavor. He believes in taking care of the men that have chosen to accompany them in the trek, and that brute force is not the way to get what they want.

This disparity in core beliefs leads to an argument where Garth leaves Dunson, and then to a final act gunfight shootout—a classic trope of the Western genre—that Garth actually refuses to participate in. In the end the two make amends, and Dunson finally lets Garth in the business by adding his letter into the cattle branding.

Masculinity, Two Ways

John Wayne (left), Montgomery Clift (right) | Photo Credits: Getty Images

However, this difference in ideologies goes way beyond the characters in the movie, and actually reflects the actors that portray them. John Wayne was perhaps one of the biggest American icons, starring in almost one hundred Westerns throughout his lifetime, and representing an embodiment of the traditional man’s man: rough-featured, tough, emotionally repressed, willing to fight and to defend what’s his.

Montgomery Clift, on the other hand, was not that. Monty, with his boyish face and charm, became known for his portrayals of much more dramatic and emotionally deep roles. And he was, of course, a closeted homosexual at the time. 

So, in a way, the core confrontation in Red River can come down to the traditional masculine ideals of force and conquest versus a softer, more emotional approach to life. At one point, when Garth refuses to take out his gun, Dunson confronts him and tells him “you’re too soft.” It feels like it could be Wayne talking directly to Clift. Even though the two sides are able to coexist in the end, that ending feels more like an inserted Hollywood finale rather than two opposing ideologies finding common ground.

I’ll Show You Mine…

In the other central male relationship of the movie, a young gunman named Cherry Valance (John Ireland) joins the cattle drive and helps redirect it to a closer destination. The sexual tension that exists between him and Garth is strong, palpable, and undeniable from their first encounter.

In the film’s most infamous scene, the first conversation they have revolves around them comparing and feeling each other’s guns, and engaging in a public display of their talents with their weapons, as everyone else watches. They look longingly into each other as they realize they found a true match and equal in each other. Yes, it is as gay as it sounds.

For Garth, Valence works as a perfect counterpart to Dunson. He is someone his own age, who values his skills, his worldview, and his contributions to the drive. There is no power dynamic. They are equals. They are partners. Which is everything that Garth ever wanted to be.

Trailblazers

Image Credit: ‘Red River,’ MGM

Red River doesn’t have cowboys having sex inside a tent or reminiscing about a past romance that dwindled— but, in a way, it planted the seeds so that other movies could have that decades into the future.

It played with the ideas of “right” and “wrong” masculinity at the peak of the genre, and used two actors who couldn’t have been more opposed to each other to embody them.

It’s a movie that understands the inherent confrontation that the Western presents to its protagonists: in a world where there is only vast lands and fellow men, how do you relate to them? You can fight them, or you can embrace them. Just not too close. Not yet, at least.

Red River is currently streamable via FuboTV, Hoopla, MGM+, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, and Tubi. Available for digital rental/purchase on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube TV.

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