Directed by John Ford
November 15, 1950
A cavalry officer stationed along the Rio Grande must contend with his estranged wife and son as well as murderous Apaches crossing the Rio Grande to use Mexico as a safe haven.
Rio Grande is an exciting story starring John Wayne as Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke and the great Maureen O’Hara as his wife Kathleen Yorke. They are an extremely estranged couple and each dealing with their son (Claude Jarman Jr.) being in the military in their own way. Fifteen years prior they had parted ways but there was never a divorce.
This was the first pairing of Wayne and O’Hara under the great director John Ford and the film itself came about Republic Pictures President Herbert Yates demanded that Rio Grande be made first by Ford who wished to make The Quiet Man instead with the same pairing to offset feared losses from what he saw as the weaker film. For the record, The Quiet Man did better. Not that this did too bad either.
Claude Jarman Jr. is not too bad as their son who lied about his age to get in the cavalry after failing out of West Point. I think Harry Carey Jr. who plays Trooper Daniel “Sandy” Boone should have been cast as the son. He and Wayne had chemistry together-at least more than Wayne and Jarman. Jarman does much better when he is with O’Hara though.
As usual with a John Wayne character, Yorke’s manly charms eventually win over Kathleen but unlike other female characters Kathleen, perhaps owing to O’Hara herself, does not melt into a puddle of emotion at Yorke’s first move. Kathleen is standoffish to the man that disappeared from her life 15 years prior even though she and him both hold feelings for one another. Her first priority is their son Jefferson (referred to usually as “Jeff”) who she wishes to buy out of the cavalry but to accomplish this his father must sign as well. Lt. Col. Yorke is a man of duty and fairness and will not treat his son any different than he would someone not his kin.
Lt. Col. Yorke is married to the cavalry in spirit, yet his heart still longs for his wife. This theme is not uncommon in film or television. The separation was caused when circumstances during the Civil War forced Yorke to burn his wife’s family home Bridesdale. The man who actually put the torch to it is Yorke’s friend Sergeant Major Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) who is still with Yorke. His presence only puts salt in the emotional wounds.
I have one gripe with this film. An older film technique was speeding up the camera a little during action scenes. I guess this was to heighten the excitement. I am not sure but even when I was a little kid and saw this technique it looked silly. It does not help in car chases and is even worse in action scenes of Westerns in general. It looks cartoonish and I am glad it is something that has disappeared from the tool chest of filmmakers. They use it in Rio Grande on several occasions. I am not sure why anyone would think to use it in footage featuring someone like actor Ben Johnson (here playing Trooper Travis Tyree) alone. Being a world champion rodeo cowboy, he knew what he was doing with a horse and I am sure he knew how to make it look good on film.
Speaking of Trooper Travis Tyree, he is accused of committing manslaughter shortly before joining the service. As part of his story, two marshals show up at the fort to take him back to Texas for trial but he escapes on Yorke’s horse. Him being on the run is what helps with the resolution of the film. This is heavy on the coinkydink but based on his voice alone you can buy that Johnson as Tyree is enough of a frontiersman that this would happen. To drive this home to the audience there is a scene earlier where Tyree instinctually knows that a coyote call is not an actual coyote but rather Apache scouts signaling to each other.
Despite the use of rapid camera though the action is rather solid, but Rio Grande is not exclusively an action film. This is a romantic drama about a man that has run away from his responsibilities and now must confront the wrongs of his past when fate brings what he left behind back into his life. It is implied that Yorke could not face Kathleen after being forced to hurt her and simply ran away. Wayne often played responsible characters or characters forced to “man up” and face their responsibilities and the consequences for their actions.
There is something I need to note. I have only recently started going through the John Wayne filmography and this is the second film I have seen so far where John Wayne, paired with O’Hara, has abandoned her character for some reason. He did it in Big Jake. I know they did a few films together and they were good friends in real life. I am wondering if this is some kind of theme that has occurred when the two actors have starred together. I am going to keep an eye on this.
The folk songs performed by the Sons of the Pioneers (of whom Ford’s son-in-law Ken Curtis, best known as Festus on Gunsmoke, is one) felt a little force. It is like they were expected to have a song or two in the movie so they had to put something in. Either that or Ford really liked his son-in-law and wanted to give him a career boost.
The feelings between Kathleen and Yorke were not conveyed in beat you over the head dialogue but rather at first in looks and in the tone used in exchanges between the two. Then it built to dialogue. Ford treated the audience here as smart enough to understand what was going on. That is not something we get often enough these days.
Rio Grande is the third installment of John Ford’s unofficial cavalry trilogy. The first two being Fort Apache in 1948 and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949. John Wayne starred in all three. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon he was Captain of Cavalry Nathan Cutting Brittles while in Fort Apache he was Captain Kirby York and then he was the promoted Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke in Rio Grande. I am not sure if the latter two were supposed to be connected with plot elements of the former ignored in the latter as could happen in older films. There is also the issue of the change in the spelling of names.
John Ford knew how to handle a Western and he does a fine job here. Shot entirely in Moab, Utah he created a film environment that encapsulated Western visual mythology placed in a story filled with passion and drama and action. Despite reports of how uncomfortable they were, they actors all did a good job.
We do not know get a clear ending for the relationship between Kathleen and Kirby though we are left with an indication that things will be okay by the simple act of them holding hands at the end during the awards ceremony.
Rio Grande is an entertaining and rather enjoyable film. It has good characters and good action and easily overcomes any flaws it has. Watch it!