"Funny how different you feel," cattleman Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan) relates near the end of "Red River," "when you know you're going somewheres." He's right, but his is a sojourner's satisfaction, marking the conclusion of a long expedition. For viewers of Howard Hawks' mythic 1948 Western, the foremost pleasure is in the odyssey itself.
Adapted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from Chase's novel "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail," first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and included in The Criterion Collection's new dual-format boxed set, the film opens on a westbound wagon train passing through North Texas in August, 1851. Ambitious, stubborn rancher Tom Dunson (John Wayne) -- "a mighty set man," Groot explains -- possesses an unshakeable conviction that land further south is the keystone of his imagined empire, and even the love of a good woman (Coleen Gray) cannot slow his pursuit. He leaves her with his mother's bracelet, but Hawks and cinematographer Russell Harlan compose the separation as though a fateful crossroads. While the endless train of pioneers shuffles past behind them, Dunson and Groot's wagon carves through the foreground to reveal the lone woman in the center, dwarfed by looming, distant peaks. Dunson will never see her again.
This geography of the places in between, mirrored by the perpendicular lines of Dunson's departure or the parallel double-S of his cattle brand -- "like the banks of a river," he says -- emerges as the film's primary terrain. The eponymous waterway, after all, is neither origin nor destination, but turning point: the hinge on which the action swings. It's near the Red River that Dunson and Groot meet orphaned tough Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), whom Dunson straightens out with a few sharp smacks to the face, fleecing Garth of his pistol in the process. "Don't ever trust anybody 'til you know 'em," Dunson warns.
Garth joins up on the promise that Dunson's brand will one day bear an "M," and the trio strikes out for unclaimed territory, finally settling on a spot near the Rio Grande. The most remarkable sequence in the film winnows the realization of Dunson's vision to a dreamlike fourteen-year leap forward, set to the gravelly melody of Wayne's voice -- destiny manifested by the incantatory rhythms of the rancher's poetic blueprint. Once again, though, Hawks concerns himself with the transitory, the in-between, the impermanent: as soon as we learn that Dunson has achieved his grand plan, the camera zooms out from Wayne's face to reveal him huddled with Groot and Garth (played in the adult years by Montgomery Clift), discussing the dream's deconstruction. The poverty plaguing the South after the Civil War leaves Dunson without buyers, flat broke and ready to drive his livestock from whence he came.