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Cowboy ClassicsThe Roots of the American Western in the Epic Tradition$
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Kirsten Day

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781474402460

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474402460.001.0001

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date: 30 May 2020

Howard Hawks’s Red River

Howard Hawks’s Red River

Chapter:
(p.36) 1 Howard Hawks’s Red River
Source:
Cowboy Classics
Author(s):

Kirsten Day

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9781474402460.003.0003

As the film that introduced a new psychological complexity to the genre while establishing John Wayne as a serious actor rather than merely a star, Howard Hawks’s 1948 Red River is often considered the first Golden Age Western. After brief discussion of its literary roots and the circumstances surrounding its production, release, and reception, this chapter connects this film to the broader epic tradition before turning to specific parallels with the three canonical Greco-Roman epics, first, arguing that much like Homer’s Iliad, Red River positions Wayne’s Tom Dunson as an Achilles figure – a man consumed by deadly rage provoked by a slight to his honor. Next, expanding on Gerald Mast’s identification of the film as an Odyssey, this chapter shows that in both works, a morally ambiguous hero embarks upon a quest to preserve his home, and in both, the father-son relationship is central, along with related issues of succession, status, authority, and identity. Finally, Red River’s kinship with Virgil’s Aeneid is discussed: both highlight the painful sacrifices inherent in the heroic work of nation-building – difficulties symbolized in both cases by the sacrifice of women and the hero’s compromised humanity – emphasizing the cost of empire even while promoting its glories.

Keywords:   Howard Hawks, Red River, Golden Age Western, John Wayne, Homer, Virgil, Aeneid, Iliad, Odyssey

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