John Wayne played many roles over the course of his iconic career, but he considered his work in 1948’s Red River his acting breakthrough. It was all made possible because of director Howard Hawks, who forced Wayne to reconsider his method of acting. Wayne was noted as claiming Red River was the first film in which he “felt like a real actor.”
John Wayne: My Life With the Duke, by Pilar Wayne and Alex Thorleifson, is a biography of John Wayne that explores his life and career. When asked about his acting abilities, he frequently quoted his mentor, John Ford: “I don’t act; I react.”
However, Wayne intended to put in a distinct type of performance in Red River. He played a cantankerous old man who had to also be likable in Red River. Thomas Dunson’s tale is focused on his character as he drives a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. However, his tyrannical conduct on the trail leads to his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) leading an insurrection.
A casting choice had The Duke playing his Red River character differently
Montgomery Clift starting a mutiny against John Wayne may have been a stretch in careless hands. After all, Clift was a runt compared to the Duke’s 6’4 frame. As a consequence, Wayne felt that his performance had to sell Clift’s ability to overpower him. According to Pilar and Thorleifson, Hawks was ecstatic about Wayne’s work in Red River after they completed the film. “I couldn’t have made Red River without John Wayne,” he said. Howard Hawkes’ praise meant a lot to Wayne. “That set me thinking,” Wayne recalled to Pilar. “It was the first time I felt like a real actor, someone who could make a unique contribution to motion pictures.”
Wayne was inspired by the story of Red River, which prompted him to reflect on himself. He wasn’t proud of his previous actions, especially given how his first two marriages came to ugly divorces. Wayne, on the other hand, was resolved to modify his behavior in the future and leave a positive legacy for future generations. To do so, he signed onto motion pictures that promoted positive principles for younger generations.
“I’d kind of put all the things my father taught me out of my mind,” Wayne recalled. “But, when I started looking for a creed to live by, I knew I couldn’t do better than to believe in the things my father believed in.”
Wayne almost passed on Red River
John Wayne, on the other hand, didn’t want to play the lead character because Thomas Dunson was many years older than Wayne in real life. However, Hawks had some choice words for him to try and persuade him to sign on for the role.
“I never showed Wayne the screenplay,” Hawks said. “I just told him the story and he thought it was one of the best he’d ever heard, but he said, ‘I don’t want to play an old man.’ I said, ‘Duke, you’re going to be one pretty soon, so why not get some practice?’ He said, ‘How the hell am I gonna play one? Hawkes was nearly 50 at the time, so he replied, ‘Just watch me getting up. That’s the way to play it”, he quipped.