John Wayne Called ‘Red River’ Story ‘One of the Best’ He’d Ever Heard but Didn’t Want to Play an Old Man

John Wayne had an eye for what he felt would work with his casual acting style. He wasn’t afraid to turn down projects that he didn’t feel connected with. However, Wayne initially didn’t see himself fitting in on Red River, even though he called it “one of the best” stories he ever heard of. Fortunately, the legendary actor ultimately agreed to sign onto the project.

John Wayne played Thomas Dunson in ‘Red River’

'Red River' actors John Wayne as Thomas Dunson and Montgomery Clift as Matt Garth sitting next to each other beaten up
L-R: John Wayne as Thomas Dunson and Montgomery Clift as Matt Garth | Bettmann/Getty Images

Red River follows a headstrong man named Thomas Dunson (Wayne). He starts a Texas cattle ranch that begins thriving but not without some help. Thomas’ loyal trailhand named Groot (Walter Brennan), his protogé, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), and an orphan that Thomas welcomed with open arms.

Thomas needs money as a result of the economic impact of the Civil War. He and Matt lead a cattle drive to Missouri. They hope to get a better price there, but the journey isn’t as smooth as they initially thought. Thomas and Matt don’t see eye-to-eye, as they begin to butt heads on the long journey to Missouri.

John Wayne called the story ‘one of the best’ he’d ever heard, but he didn’t want to play an old man

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John Farkis’ Not Thinkin’ … Just Rememberin’ … The Making of John Wayne’s The Alamo explores Wayne’s extraordinary life. His career experienced a series of ups and downs, involving film projects with varied success. However, Red River director Howard Hawks originally wanted Gary Cooper or Cary Grant to star in the lead role. Cooper thought the role was “too violent” and Grant didn’t want second billing. As a result, Wayne was hired on Red River.

However, Wayne didn’t initially want to star in the lead role because Thomas was a lot older than the actor was in real life. However, Hawks had some choice words to try and convince him to sign onto the project.

“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? I was about 50 then, so I said, ‘Just watch me getting up. That’s the way to play it.’”

Hawks brought in Walter Brennan to show Wayne how to play an older man for his role in Red River. However, the actor ultimately went with a totally different way to play the character.

“Brennan showed me how to walk like a tottery old man,” Wayne said. “I went home that night and thought of all the old cattlemen I knew when I was a kid. I was raised in the West. I rode a horse to school. And none of the outdoors-men were tottery.”

However, Wayne ultimately brought an “erect” and “domineering” performance to the role instead.

‘Red River’ earned 2 Oscar nominations

Wayne ultimately predicted that Red River would be a successful movie. It earned $4.5 million against a $2.7 million budget. Additionally, Red River made it all the way to the Oscars. It earned nominations for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story and Best Film Editing. However, the film lost out to The Search and The Naked City, respectively.

However, Red River remains one of the most iconic Western movies of all time. The movie is sitting at a 100% critics score and an 87% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics praise the film for delivering everything that a moviegoer could possibly want from a Western.

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