There was some concern that John Wayne and Montgomery Clift would not get along, since they were diametrically opposed on all political issues, and both were outspoken on their views. According to legend they agreed not to discuss politics and the shooting went smoothly. However, both Wayne and Walter Brennan would not get along with Clift, and they stayed away from the young actor when not filming. Clift later turned down Dean Martin's role in Rio Bravo (1959) because he did not want to be reunited with those two actors.
Texas Longhorn cattle had been nearly extinct as a breed for about 50 years when this film was made. Only a few dozen animals were available. In the herd scenes most of the cattle are Hereford crosses with the precious Longhorns prominently placed in crucial scenes.
Howard Hawks was distressed by John Ireland's unprofessional and lecherous behavior during filming, which were partially due to the actor's alcoholism. This contributed to Ireland's part, "Cherry Valance", being drastically reduced in the finished film. However, others on the film--notably writer Borden Chase--have said that Hawks' main problem with Ireland was that that they were both competing for the affections of Joanne Dru and Hawks found himself on the losing end (Ireland and Dru were married a year later) and took out his resentment at his loss on Ireland. Hawks later called Chase "an idiot," a heavy drinker and philanderer who didn't know what he was talking about, adding that the real reason he cut Ireland's scenes was because the actor was always getting drunk, stoned on marijuana, and losing his hat and gun.
John Wayne felt the film was slightly overlong, and was concerned how Montgomery Clift could fight him on screen. Howard Hawks filmed the final fight in such a way that Clift was able to realistically stand up to the much taller and heavier Wayne.
Before filming began consideration was given to shooting in color, but Howard Hawks found the processes at that time to be too garish and decided that black-and-white as being more conducive to a feeling of the period.
Despite the reputed lack of rain, there were frequent unexpected downpours on location. John Wayne convinced Howard Hawks to shoot in all weather, and the script was rewritten to accommodate a fierce storm.
In a 1974 interview, Howard Hawks said that he originally offered the role of Thomas Dunson to Gary Cooper but he had declined it because he didn't believe the ruthless nature of Dunson's character would have suited his screen image.
Montgomery Clift was nervous about standing up to John Wayne but gained confidence when Howard Hawks told him to play his scenes like David against Goliath. He also urged the young actor to underplay in his scenes with Wayne, particularly the scene in which his character challenges Dunson for the first time. Wayne was also not sure Clift could be convincing as a rugged cowboy, but after that first confrontation scene he told Hawks his doubts were gone and "he's going to be okay."
Howard Hawks and John Wayne also differed on how Wayne would play the aged Dunson. Hawks thought that beyond the added gray hair and wrinkles, Wayne should move and talk differently and suggested he consult Walter Brennan on techniques for appearing old. Wayne found the shuffling and tottering that Brennan suggested to be detrimental to his character and image and played it his own way, "standin' tall." Wayne did, however, interject some subtle movements to convey his advanced years, such as reaching out for Montgomery Clift's assistance in rising to his feet from a crouch. Wayne recalled, "Oh, yeah, Hawks and I had a few fights along the way, but he accepted me as an expert, which I was, and we did not have any more trouble, and I was always happy to work for Hawks."
Reportedly, upon completing this movie Howard Hawks gave John Wayne a belt buckle that featured the Red River D logo (Wayne later wore this as part of his costume in several other films including El Dorado (1967)). According to this story, Wayne later returned the favor and gave Hawks a twin buckle. However, actor Hank Worden, who played Sims Reeves, claimed that he had liked the Red River D brand and had had a local silversmith make him a small buckle with the brand (which he also wore in several later films). According to Worden, Wayne saw his buckle, admired it, and asked for the name of the silversmith. Wayne then had matching (larger) buckles made for himself and Hawks.
Howard Hawks had great respect for John Wayne, even though many people didn't consider him a great actor. "He's a damn good actor. He does everything, and he makes you believe it," Hawks later commented.
Howard Hawks said he often thought of John Ford when shooting, particularly in a burial scene when ominous clouds started to gather. He told John Wayne to keep talking, say anything, and they would fix the sound later. In the final cut the scene is played with a big cloud dramatically passing over, and Hawks said he told Ford, "Hey, I've got one almost as good as you can do--you better go and see it."
John Wayne responded to Montgomery Clift's underplaying by working harder at his difficult role. In the scene where Clift tells him he's taking over the drive and moving the herd to Abilene, Wayne turned his back on him and said in a low voice, "I'm gonna kill you, Matt." The action was counter to Howard Hawks' direction to have Wayne cringe, but the actor refused to appear cowardly and played it his way, to Hawks' ultimate satisfaction. The improvised moment left Clift dumbfounded and was used in the final cut.
Montgomery Clift had learned to ride horses while at military prep school, but it was a different kind of riding than he was required to do in this role. He asked experienced Western actor Noah Beery Jr.. for help and worked hard to become convincing on screen. Beery later said, "The thing he enjoyed most was becoming a hell of a good cowboy and horseman." Howard Hawks always had high praise for how hard Clift worked on the picture.
Howard Hawks shot the beginning of the cattle drive in close-ups of each of the principal cowhands because he felt tight shots would be needed to help the audience keep all the characters straight in their minds. To that end, he also gave them all different kinds of hats, including a derby. Montgomery Clift used Hawks' own hat, which was given to him by Gary Cooper. Cooper had imparted a weather-beaten look to the hat by watering it every night. "Spiders built nests in it," Hawks said. "It looked great."
Howard Hawks and his crew scouted more than 15,000 miles of territory in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Mexico before settling on a location. The film was shot on a vast cattle ranch near Elgin, Arizona, from June-November 1946. Other locations included the Whetstone Mountains in Arizona and the San Pedro River, standing in for the Red River.
Montgomery Clift didn't warm to either Howard Hawks or John Wayne. He did occasionally take part in the nightly poker games that they organized where "they laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back. They tried to draw me into their circle but I couldn't go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary".
During production, many members of the cast and crew caught illnesses and injuries. Howard Hawks was hospitalized for several days after being stung by a centipede. John Wayne caught a severe cold. Joanne Dru suffered from influenza.
Two sets of costumes were required to cover wear and tear, to a total of $150,000 for the cowboys' wardrobe (Joanne Dru's costumes alone cost more than $20,000). Each actor had two pairs of boots at $150 a pair.
Harry Carey Jr. reputedly played two different roles in the film. One was Dan Latimer, who was killed in the stampede. The other was supposedly later in the movie when he (wearing black vest and hat) and John Wayne stood together and Carey spoke the line, "They crossed here . . . "
To get the impressive shot of Dunson surveying his vast herd, the camera was placed on a motorized turntable so it always moved at the same speed. The shot began with him at a fencepost and panned across the cattle until it came to another fencepost. The camera was then stopped while the available cattle were moved into the next segment of the shot, then started again. This was repeated until the camera moves back to him, giving the impression that he was looking out at many times more cattle than they actually had on location.
Montgomery Clift was offered a flat $60,000 for the film. But Clift had to be talked into doing the role, mostly because of his concern about the climactic fight scene with the bigger and tougher John Wayne. It was a doubt amplified in his mind by several friends who told him he was crazy to play against type. Clift finally agreed to do it at Howard Hawks' urging but refused to sign more than a one-picture deal.
John Wayne gave the producers extensive advice about the possible location and logistical problems associated with making Westerns and insisted Howard Hawks hire real cowhands and trained stunt professionals instead of the amateurs he had lined up. The director ended up signing 70 real cowboys for the job. He also contracted to have dozens of horses represent the hundreds required by the story and about a thousand head of cattle at $10 per day each stand in for Dunson's herd of 10,000. Wayne said once it was clear Hawks was taking his advice seriously and the budget would be increased, he agreed to do the picture.
Several players appeared with John Wayne in a number of films, many of them identified as the John Ford stock company in many of that director's pictures. Hank Worden (Simms Reeves) played a key part as Old Mose in The Searchers (1956) and was in 15 other Wayne movies. Paul Fix made 27 pictures with Wayne between 1931 and 1973. Wayne worked with Harry Carey four times and with his son, Harry Carey Jr., ten times. Noah Beery Jr. and Wayne were in four films together.
John Wayne attended a production meeting with Howard Hawks and executive producer Charles K. Feldman and expressed his concerns with their approach to the film. The first thing he suggested was that they get United Artists to up the $1.5 million dollars by more than 50 percent since their intentions were clearly to make a blockbuster.
The film bears some resemblance to Come and Get It (1936), a film Howard Hawks began that was taken over by William Wyler. In both films, there is a conflict between an older and younger man, father and foster son figures, who end up competing for the same woman; in that film, the Frances Farmer character is a surrogate for the woman the older man loved and lost years before.
Dams had to be built across the San Pedro River (standing in for the Red River) so it would rise to the appropriate level for shooting, and the 500 actors and extras had to be fitted with duplicate authentic costumes to cover for the substantial wear-and-tear they endured.
Blink and you'll miss a couple of future stars in bit parts. Shelley Winters can be glimpsed as a dance hall girl in the second wagon train. Richard Farnsworth plays one of Dunson's men. He was also a stuntman on the picture. Harder to recognize is Glenn Strange, who appeared in 16 of John Wayne's earlier films; this was their last picture together.
The song Dean Martin sings in the jail in Rio Bravo (1959) was originally written by Dimitri Tiomkin for this film, but it was completed too late for use in the scene where a cowboy song was needed, so they substituted another one. But strains of the song can be heard in the theme music, and the words were changed for use in the later movie.
Both the book The Celluloid Closet and the 1995 documentary made from it referenced thus film as one of the classic Hollywood pictures with veiled homoerotic undertones. Joseph McBride and Gerald Peary, in an interview with Howard Hawks for Film Comment, commented on the gay subtexts of several of the director's films, particularly this one. Hawks' reply was that it was "a goddam silly statement to make." The exchanges between Matt Garth and Cherry Valance have been especially singled out as coded homosexual dialogue. Also, it is rumoured that Montgomery Clift and John Ireland had an affair during filming.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Upon attending a rough-cut screening of the picture, Montgomery Clift was disappointed, mostly because of the ending, which he thought was ludicrous "because Joanne Dru settles it and it makes the showdown between me and John Wayne a farce." He also found his own performance mediocre but recognized it as a star-making role. "I watched myself in Red River (1948) and knew I was going to be famous, so I decided I would get drunk anonymously one last time," he later said.
Borden Chase's original script has Tess and Matt escort a mortally wounded Dunston across the Red River, where they stand him up long enough to have him die on Texas soil. Chase vigorously objected to Howard Hawks' change but to no avail.