Red River is a 1948 Western film directed by Howard Hawks, giving a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. The dramatic tension stems from a growing feud over the management of the drive, between the Texas rancher who initiated it (John Wayne) and his adopted adult son (Montgomery Clift). The film also starred Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Hank Worden, Noah Beery Jr. and Harry Carey, Jr. Borden Chase wrote the script with Charles Schnee, based on Chase's story, "The Chisholm Trail."
Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a stubborn man who wants nothing more than to start up a successful cattle ranch in Texas. Shortly after he begins his journey to Texas with his trail hand, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), Dunson learns that his love interest (Coleen Gray), whom he had told to stay behind with the wagon train with the understanding that he would send for her later, was killed in an Indian attack. Despite this tragedy, Dunson and Groot press on, only to chance on an orphaned boy named Matthew Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn and as an adult by Montgomery Clift), whom Dunson effectively adopts. With only a couple head of cattle, Dunson and the boy enter Texas by crossing the Red River and Dunson proudly proclaims all the land about them as his own. Two Mexican men appear on horseback and inform Dunson that the land already belongs to their boss. Dunson dismisses this inconvenient fact and thanks to a quicker draw in a showdown, kills one of the men and tells the other man to inform his boss that Dunson now owns the land. Dunson names his new spread the Red River D, after his chosen cattle brand for his herd. Fatefully, he promises to add M (for Matt) to the brand, once Matt has earned it. Fourteen years pass and Dunson now has a fully operational cattle ranch. With the help of Matt and Groot, his herd now numbers over ten thousand cattle, but he is also broke as a result of having been on the losing side in the American Civil War. With the price of cattle in Texas not to his liking, Dunson decides to drive his massive herd hundreds of miles north to Missouri, where he believes they will fetch a much better price. After hiring some extra men to help out with the drive, including expert marksman Cherry Valance (John Ireland), they set off on their perilous journey northwards. Along the way, they encounter many troubles, including a stampede sparked by one of the men making a sudden noise while trying to steal sugar from the chuck wagon. Deeper problems arise when Dunson's tyrannical leadership style begins to affect the rest of the men. When Dunson attempts to lynch two of the men who tried to desert the drive, Matt rebels. With the help of Valance and the other men, Matt takes control of the drive in order to take it to the closer railhead in Abilene, Kansas, leaving Dunson behind. This infuriates Dunson, who vows to track down Matt and kill him. On the way to Abilene, Matt and his men repulse an Indian attack on a wagon train. One of the people they save is Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who falls in love with Matt. He leaves in a hurry one night during a rain storm. Later Tess encounters Dunson, who is still on Matt's trail, and tries to dissuade him from his pursuit. She offers to bear him a son if he'll let Matt live, but he refuses. When Matt reaches Abilene, he finds men there who have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of such a herd to buy it; Matt happily accepts an excellent offer for the cattle. Unknowingly, he has just completed the first cattle drive along what would become the Chisholm Trail. Shortly thereafter, Dunson arrives in Abilene with a posse to follow through with his vow to kill Matt. The two men begin a furious fight, which Tess interrupts by drawing a gun on both men and demanding that they realize the love that they share for each other. Dunson and Matt see the error of their ways and make peace with each other. The film ends with Dunson telling Matt that he will incorporate an M into the brand as he had promised to do years before and advises Matt to marry Tess.