Quick setup so this doesn’t seem totally insane – I wrote this for a class given this basic instruction, taken from Christian Keathley’s 2006 book Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees:

“Select a detail from a movie…it should not be obviously symbolic, and the purpose to which you put it should not be the filmmaker’s obvious intention. Follow this detail wherever it leads and report your findings. Your goal is to propose a new way of understanding the movie you discuss.”

In his review of the film as part of his Great Movies series, Roger Ebert declares:

    “Red River is one of the greatest of all Westerns when it stays with its central story about an older man and a younger one, and the first cattle drive down the Chisholm Trail. It is only in its few scenes involving women that it goes wrong…The three scenes with Tess (Joanne Dru) are the movie’s low points, in part because of per prattle (listen to how she chats distractingly with Matt during an Indian attack), in part because she is all too obviously the dues ex machina the plot needs to avoid an unhappy ending.”

Essentially, Ebert is right. Tess’ purpose is to make two people – Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) and Tom Dunson (John Wayne), suddenly get along after a bitter feud arose between them. It feels forced, and for those familiar with the rules, like a Production Code-forced ending. In spite of this, Tess does provide the film’s most magical little moment – in a conversation with Dunson, she swings her arm down and strikes a match on her table. It’s the swing of her arm and the instant ignition of the match that has me mesmerized. The swing itself suggests a casual nonchalance, and firmly establishes that she is in control of the scene; despite his cultural image, John Wayne appears quite small here, even weak. A lot is done with simple staging – she is standing and he is sitting – but it’s the match strike that instantly and naturally commands our attention as an audience.

    First, the means by which Hawks accomplished the shot is a minor miracle unto itself. I reviewed this scene a few times over, certain that he cut before the match ignites, so it was as simple as lighting it right before the action picks up. To my astonishment, Hawks actually cuts quickly after the match is lit, but not right away – the shot lingers just long enough to show the match catch fire. The first thought that might roll through an audience member’s mind is that Tess had a strike anywhere match. However, this sequence takes place in 1866, but strike anywhere matches wouldn’t be developed until the early twentieth century.

The basic match – a stick that can hold fire – has been around for centuries in one form or another, but it wasn’t until 1827 that matches became anything close to what they resemble today; that is, one based on friction. Beyond that, the safety match wasn’t developed until 1844. Prior to this, matches shot sparks around and had pretty uncontrollable flames. Given that no sparks emitted and the flame was relatively under control, Tess was probably using a safety match. The striking surface, however, was typically composed of 25% powdered glass, 50% red phosphorus, 5% neutralizer, 4% carbon black and 16% binder – probably not the rough makeup of Tess’ table, which looked like it was coated with leather. Whatever it was covered with, it would be absurd for a table in a wagon train to be covered with a material that only really exists to strike matches on.

    So what happened? Does Tess have some cunning skill with a match? I propose instead that this sets Tess up as a force in the film. Roger Ebert noted that Tess is there basically as a plot device, and that’s true. But the film continuously tells us she has some sort of otherworldly quality. In her introduction, she’s receives an arrow to the shoulder and scarcely has a reaction – if nothing else, she seems to fall in love with Matt as a result. This, combined with her mastery of fire, tells us that Tess is more than just a person, but a force, which she proves to be when she somehow makes everything okay between Matt and Tom at the end. Somehow, she’s capable of controlling the world around her.

Scott can be reached at Snye@megazinemedia.com

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