Red River

Inciting Event: Dunson arrives near the Rio Grande and claims land from the Mexican owner—by killing his hired guns. But then, ten years later, his land ends up being worthless after the Civil War. So he and his adopted son Matthew Garth decide to head up a seemingly impossible cattle drive to Missouri.

The entire first eighth of this story is basically a prologue, in which we get to see Dunson’s past, including his Ghost (the death of his fiancé in an Indian attack upon her wagon train) and his bond with the young orphaned survivor Matt. Generally, I’m not a big fan of this technique, since there’s almost always so much more subtext to be found by hinting at important backstory rather than flat-out showing it.

But I think it works extremely well here. A lot of the nuance and substance in Dunson’s relationship with Matt (and Groot) would have been lost without the foundation of this setup.

First Plot Point: Dunson and his men leave on the cattle drive. This is a literal leaving of their Normal World. It’s a relatively small scene, in itself: just the cattle moving out. But it’s setup beautifully, with the tension of silence beforehand and then the raucous shouting of all the cowboys. Viewers are left in no doubt that this is an important scene.

First Pinch Point: The cattle stampede and one of the hands is killed. When Dunson threatens to kill the man responsible, Matt intervenes for the first time. In some senses, Matt is actually the main antagonist in this story, even though Dunson is the “bad guy.” Dunson’s the one with the goal; Matt’s the one who keeps getting in his way. This is also a great scene in that is it’s the first to emphasize the latent madness lurking in Dunson, which poses a grave danger to all the men he tyrannizes.

Midpoint: Dunson decides to hang three hands who tried to desert. Matt’s loyalties have been growing increasingly conflicted, even though he helped Dunson shoot other deserters earlier. Here, for the first time, he outright defies Dunson. He refuses to let Dunson hang the men, then takes over the herd, and sends Dunson back to Texas. He’s still on Dunson’s side; he’s not stealing the cattle, just taking charge of them. But this is a clear change in the power dynamics. Up to this point, he was just reacting to Dunson’s behavior. Now, he’s taking action for himself. Great Midpoint.

Second Pinch Point: Matt and his men save a wagon train of gamblers from an Indian attack. The primary turning point here is Matt’s meeting with his love interest Tess Malay. Otherwise, this isn’t an particularly strong Pinch Point, although it is filled with plenty of danger to both the men and the herd.

Third Plot Point: After falling in love with Tess and telling her the story of what’s happened with Dunson, Matt his forced by the rising river to leave her behind. This isn’t a great Third Plot Point, although to be fair the movie had a lot of ground to cover with their hasty romance at this point in the story.

Climax: Matt and his men reach Abilene, Kansas, and drive the herd into town. He’s achieved Dunson’s goal. Now, all that’s left is to face Dunson himself. This is an interesting use of double Climaxes. Getting the herd to market has been the main goal throughout; but the antagonistic force was shaved off into a new story goal (survival) at the Midpoint. So the tension still remains as Matt waits to face down Dunson.

Climactic Moment: Thanks to Tess’s intervention, Dunson forgives Matt.

I love this movie. It’s one of my all-time favorite westerns. But what essentially amounts to deus ex machina on Tess’s part here at the end is by far the weakest part of the entire story. It’s anti-climactic and never fulfills its promises of forcing Dunson and Matt to really sort out their relationship.

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