Hawks told Wayne that it was fine and that he would take the idea to another movie with a “better actor”
Red River actor John Wayne was sensitive to violence that he thought was “too much” in motion pictures. As a result, he frequently called out the films that he thought were going for shock value. Additionally, Wayne spoke up against the inclusion of such scenes in his own feature films, which is exactly what he did when director Howard Hawks suggested a finger mutilation scene that didn’t ultimately make the cut.
Red River tells the story of Thomas Dunson (Wayne), who puts together the seedlings of a Texas cattle ranch that has the potential to thrive. He requires help from his trail hand named Groot (Walter Brennan), as well as his protégé, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). As a result of the Civil War, they’re hurting for money and need to find a way to put together a plan to collect more.
Thomas and Matt go on a cattle drive to Missouri, where they believe that they will get more money selling livestock than local sales. However, the pair begin to argue and find what separates them. Their entire plan to put together a thriving cattle ranch progressively looks less likely.
According to an interview with Cinema magazine, Hawks talked about filming Red River with Wayne. They got along rather well, as they later proved to have quite a lot of respect for one another. Wayne and Hawks often worked as collaborators in a much more involved way than the movie star did with most other filmmakers.
“Wayne is like a big cat on his feet, he thinks quickly and he thinks right,” Hawks said. “Also, he contributes to what other people do. If he sees somebody who is not moving, he tells ‘em to move, and it becomes part of the story.”
Hawks intended to include a comic relief scene in Red River, but he knew that he would need to convince Wayne to go along with it. Thomas would get his finger mutilated in between the saddle horn and a rope. As a result, he would have to get drunk enough for an amputation. However, Wayne didn’t find this funny and wanted it out of the movie.
Hawks told Wayne that it was fine and that he would take the idea to another movie with a “better actor.” He ultimately took the idea over to The Big Sky, where Kirk Douglas would deliver that scene exactly.
Wayne did later involve himself in a finger mutilation scene beyond Red River. However, it was much later in his career with 1969’s True Grit with director Henry Hathaway. He was partially able to sell the idea to the movie star because his character wouldn’t be the one receiving the punishment. Rather, a villain would be on the receiving end of it. In a radio interview with film critic Gerald Pratley, Wayne explained his perspective on it.
“I thought it was going too far,” Wayne said. “Henry fell in love with this idea. I think he didn’t feel that the lines that I had growling at this fellow to try and get him to confess would mean anything unless there was a shocker ahead of it. So, he certainly put a shocker ahead of it!”