So what’s more unnecessary than a remake of a classic? A TV movie remake of a classic! Released in 1948 and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift from director Howard Hawkes, the original Red River is a classic western that’s undone by one of the worst endings in the western genre. So some 40 years later, the TV remake hit TV screens on CBS. Here’s 1988’s Red River.
It’s 1865 in the months following the Civil War, and the cattle market has dried out in Texas. A cattle rancher for 15 years, Thomas Dunson (James Arness) has decided the only way to save his ranch and his cattle is to drive an immense herd north to a railroad and sell the herd for a pretty penny. It’s never been done before though, and the dangers are everywhere from Indians to bandits to weather and nasty trail. With his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Bruce Boxleitner), an ex-Confederate soldier, his longtime right-hand man, Groot (Ray Walston), and a crew of cowboys, Dunson sets off north for Missouri. His ranch and well-being are at stake, and he pushes his men and the herd to the absolute limit. His intentions are genuine, but the means are less than pleasant, pushing Garth to make a decision that could tear the whole thing apart.
So for starters, there’s no real reason to remake the ’48 Hawks version. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way…the ’88 version is pretty good. It’s limited by an obvious TV budget at times with stock and insert footage filling in for the bigger shots of the herd moving north, but the quality is pretty decent. Some fun was spent, and that’s all a TV movie really needs. The Borden Chase story is there with a decent cast. It’s hard to mess that up other than that ending. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll get some enjoyment out of the remake.
It’s hard to step into the shoes of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, but Arness and Boxleitner make a willing go of it! Arness certainly had the presence and attitude for the part. Years earlier, it was Wayne who recommended Arness play Marshal Matt Dillon TV’s Gunsmoke, and that worked out for everyone. Boxleitner — a reliable actor who never quite became a star — delivers the movie’s best performance as Garth, capable, well-meaning and loyal but only when right is on the line. The chemistry is solid between Arness and Boxleitner, and throw in an underused but always welcome Walston for good measure.
The ’48 version is infamous for some of its latent homosexual tendencies between Clift’s Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance, another young gunfighter. Gregory Harrison steps in here as Valance, and the dynamic is better. We have 2 young gunfighters, two type-A personalities, and let’s face it…there’s only room for ONE. The tension is solid, and the resolution is better than the original. The doomsday moment is the unnecessary addition of a female character, widowed Kate (Laura Johnson), for the two to fight over in predictable fashion.
Who else? The depth of the cast might not blow you away, but there’s some good stock characters here. A black cowboy, Jack Byrd (Stan Shaw), is added to the mix, injecting some life into the story. There’s also the troublemakers, L.Q. Jones and Jerry Potter, the youngster, Zachary Ansley, and the reliable cowboy, Burton Gilliam, who many will recognize from his key part in Blazing Saddles. Western fans should also keep their eye out for a quartet of cameos — blink and you’ll miss them — including Guy Madison, Ty Hardin, John Lupton and Robert Horton. Definitely cool to see some familiar western faces pop up, even if it’s only for a scene.
The cattle drive western is one of the archetypal genre set pieces. Including its predecessor, Lonesome Dove, one of the best segments from Centennial, The Cowboys, and plenty of others, it helps average stories rise above to something better. Familiar? Even repetitive? At times, but they’re always entertaining. This ’88 remake is a tad rushed in spots at just 94 minutes — comparing to the original’s 133 minutes — but it is never dull. If it is too familiar, so be it. I liked it. A solid, if unnecessary remake.
Red River (1988): ** 1/2 /****