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The Red River D Belt Buckle Mystery

John Wayne was arguably the most popular movie star in the history of world cinema. Any time a person achieves that level of stature, memorabilia and replicas surrounding his persona command hefty values. In 1948, United Artists released Red River, the story of visionary rancher Tom Dunson (Wayne) and his creation of a cattle empire from the early days of the settling of the west to later years when his ruthless individualistic values clash with those of his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift. John Ford’s Stagecoach had established Wayne as a star in 1939. Ford’s viewing of Red River prompted him to say of Wayne, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act.” John Wayne, the actor, was born.

In Red River the cattle brand for Wayne’s ranch is a D with two wavy lines representing the banks of the river. Howard Hawks the director of Red River had silver belt buckles with a twisted silver wire rope edge, a D and two wavy lines in solid gold, the words “Red River” in gold wire and various initials and the date 1946 in cut gold made up as gifts for some of the cast and crew. These buckles have been known since as the Red River D belt buckles. John Wayne wore a Red River D belt buckle in a number of his later westerns including Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, all directed by Howard Hawks. In total Wayne wore a Red River D belt buckle in nine films.

I spoke to David Hawks, son of Howard Hawks, director of Red River, about the history of the buckles. He was seventeen years old when he worked on the now classic western as a prop man. He recollects that the buckles were constructed in two sizes. The larger ones were given to himself, his father Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Arthur Rosson, the assistant director, and Russell Harlan, the cinematographer. He couldn’t say which size, if any at all, went to actor John Ireland.

He remembers that the smaller buckles went to the women. His sister Barbara got one as well as actress Joanne Dru. More were made, but he has no memory of where they went. When I asked about the supposed exchange of belt buckles between Howard Hawks and John Wayne, he said that they indeed did exchange buckles as a sign of mutual respect and admiration for each other. So the buckle that Wayne always wore had the initials HWH in the circle in the bottom left corner and Hawks’ buckle had the initials JW on it. When I asked what happened to the buckle Wayne gave to Hawks, he said he thought it had been stolen years ago. David’s own buckle has the initials DHH in the circle and is two inches tall and three and three-eighths long. He told me that a silversmith in Nogales, Mexico made the buckles and not by (Bohlin) the silversmithing company that claimed they had made the original buckles in 1946, the year of production on the film. Each buckle had that year inscribed on it to commemorate the year of production. Of course, the film saw release in 1948.

Michael Wayne, John Wayne’s oldest son and I, a few years ago (2001 up through 2003 at Michael’s passing), worked on copies of the Red River D belt buckle from photographs of the original with help from Gary Mathis of Gary’s Custom Saddlery & Silver Buckles to recreate the closest reproduction of the buckle possible. And we succeeded! Michael told me that the original buckles were made in Mexico by a Mexican silver smith who later relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona. Later Michael said that his father used the same silversmith to make the 26 Bar belt buckles that he gave out to friends and employees at his 26 Bar ranch in 1968. The 26 Bar buckles are in the same size and style as the Red River D buckles.

Michael Wayne also told me that Howard Hawks’ and his father exchanged their buckles out of mutual respect and admiration, and also he said his father didn’t like wearing any kind of apparel or accessory with his initials on them.

Michael after his father had passed away sent his Red River D buckle in to the silver smith Bohlins in order to make a copy for the singer Eddy Arnold. Then in September of 1981, Michael again sent the buckle to Bohlins to have seven copies made for himself and his six bothers and sisters. Between four o’clock on the afternoon of September 24, 1981 and one o’clock in the afternoon on September 25, 1981 the John Wayne Red River D belt buckle was stolen from Bohlins and has not resurfaced to this day.

Walter Brennan got one of the Red River D belt buckles and it had the initials WB inscribed in the circle in the bottom left corner. Today his belongs to his son Arthur to whom Walter gave it on Arthur’s forty-fifth birthday. The date 1946 had fallen off and Arthur had another silver smith replace it.

I don’t in fact, know how many belt buckles, both large and small, were made, but I have been hearing all kinds of stories from different sources for many years. One silversmithing company is claiming that it made the original, but that could easily be fabrication aimed at selling their buckles as the authentic reproductions or duplicates.

Over the years Western Costume Company, a huge Hollywood costume house that provided costumes for movies and television, had a man by the name of Bill Reyhell made some inexpensive copies of the buckle for Wayne and his doubles to use so that Wayne’s original wouldn’t be damaged in subsequent productions. Reyhell had a metal shop with in Western Costume’s and would do any kind of metal work needed for costumes or props having to do with films. Wayne also had some buckles made for friends during the 1960s by an unknown silversmith.

So many rumors, myths and misinformation about the buckles have cropped up over the years that I felt the necessity to put some of them to rest. Many disparate stories have been told about who made the originals, what year was on them, what materials were used to make them, and what initials were on them. I compiled the information for this article from interviews with people in front of and behind the cameras during the making of Red River and from many immediate family members. Some information came from Michael Wayne, who served as the family historian before his untimely passing in April of 2003. I hope I have clarified some of the rumors surrounding the Red River D belt buckle John Wayne wore, and I hope as well that this article may be of some use to anyone seeking to purchase a copy.

The Red River D Belt Buckle Mystery | The Red River D Belt Photos
John Wayne Wearing The Red River D Belt Buckle | The Movie History of The Red River D Belt Buckle