Rio Grande (1950) | Jeremy Isaac revisits John Ford’s final entry in his Cavalry Trilogy as it hits the Blu-ray trail
Rio Grande is the third entry in director John Ford’s Western ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ (the first two are Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, released in 1948 and 1949 respectively), and features all the Fordian obsessions found in the earlier films: duty, community, the loneliness of command, career versus family, savagery versus civilisation, the ‘romance’ of the Confederacy, Irish stereotypes, fist fights, and Ford’s customary heavy humour and rollicking adventure scenes. Yet the film eschews both the prickly intensity of Fort Apache and the aching nostalgia of Yellow Ribbon to emphasise the troubled romantic relationship between its two principals, played by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.
Based on James Warner Bellah’s short story Mission With No Record, the tale is a simple one: young trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman of The Yearling fame) arrives at a remote cavalry outpost to find the command headed by no-nonsense Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne), who also happens to be his estranged father. Yorke has been separated from the boy’s mother Kathleen (O’Hara) since duty to the Union led him to burn her Southern estate during the Civil War 15 years earlier.
Shortly afterwards Kathleen also arrives at the post with the intention of buying Jeff out of his commitment to the army, to which both son and father are vehemently opposed. As the trio struggles over this issue, Yorke and Kathleen try to rekindle their shattered love, something they both want but which they wrestle with because of their tragic past.
This plays out against the backdrop of an Indian rebellion involving several gripping action scenes and the kidnapping by Apaches of the post’s children (one of which is played by 10-year-old Karolyn Grimes, best remembered as George Bailey’s youngest daughter Zuzu in It’s A Wonderful Life; the Apaches are played by members of the Navajo tribe employed by Ford in most of his ‘Indian’ Westerns). Can Yorke and his trusty troopers succeed in rescuing the beleaguered youngsters?
As always, the director’s preoccupations are accompanied by his famous use of the ‘John Ford Stock Company’: Wayne was a longtime favourite of Ford’s; O’Hara had appeared in his Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley, and would later join him and Wayne for The Quiet Man, as well as appearing in Ford’s The Long Grey Line and Wings Of Eagles in 1955 and 1957. Other Ford regulars include the boozy Victor McLaglen as Irish Sergeant Quincannon, Ken Curtis (lead singer of featured vocal group the Sons of the Pioneers, originally founded in the 1930s by Roy Rogers), former silent actor Jack Pennick, who appeared in all bar two of Ford’s 14 sound Westerns, and – importantly – lifelong Tinseltown pals Harry Carey Jr and Ben Johnson.
Harry Carey Jr’s father had been Ford’s biggest Western star during the silent era. Following his dad’s death the previous year, the director gave the young Harry an early movie break by casting him with Wayne and Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz in his allegorical 1948 oater 3 Godfathers, the opening titles of which dedicated the film ‘To the Memory of Harry Carey, bright star of the Western sky…’. Carey Jr went on to appear in dozens of movies over the next 60 years, many for John Ford, until his death in 2012 aged 91.
Raised on an Oklahoma ranch, Ben Johnson was a gen-u-ine cowboy and rodeo rider who was hired by producer Howard Hughes to ship horses to the West Coast for his controversial 1943 Western The Outlaw starring Jane Russell. In Hollywood Johnson worked as a stunt man in Westerns, and it was while working on Ford’s Fort Apache, the first in the Cavalry Trilogy, that he caught the director’s eye. During shooting, a horse team pulling a wagon bolted with three extras aboard. Seasoned horseman Johnson reacted immediately, racing after the wagon, reining in the team and saving the men’s lives.
Ford cast him as former Confederate officer-turned-US Cavalry Sergeant Travis Tyree in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Not only did the role give Johnson a chance to exercise his acting skills, it also allowed him to show off his superb horsemanship, filling the film’s action sequences with scenes of unparalleled equestrian pyrotechnics. His career with Ford seemed set, and he was cast in the lead in the director’s next venture, Wagon Master, in 1950. However, the film failed to make Johnson a star in the John Wayne mould and he returned in Rio Grande, this time as Trooper Tyree, as though demoted for his failure. He continued to make movies (mostly Westerns such as George Stevens’ Shane) for the next 40 years, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his iconic portrayal of Sam The Lion in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in 1971, before passing away in 1996 aged 77.
Harry Carey Jr was no mean horseman himself, as he (as Trooper Sandy Boone) and Johnson demonstrated in Rio Grande in a series of breathtaking scenes, notably one in which the pair rode ‘like them ancient Romans’, that is to say, standing upright atop two horses and straddling the gap between them with one foot on the back of each horse, racing and even jumping fences. However, it wasn’t all bareback for Johnson and Carey Jr, as the pair also played a crucial role as ever-present comedic guardians and protectors of the young Jeff.
Filmed in wild majestic locations in Moab, Utah, Rio Grande is not as intense as its predecessors Fort Apache or Yellow Ribbon. Certainly, it lacks the stress and tension surrounding Henry Fonda’s unyielding Colonel Owen Thursday of the first film, who pays the ultimate price for his relentless adherence to duty and the rituals of social convention, or the sense of mission failure and emasculation by being put out to pasture through retirement as experienced by Wayne’s Captain Nathan Brittles in the second.
Instead, Rio Grande‘s lower-key approach chronicles the angst-ridden contradictions of love, parenthood, family commitment and responsibility. The chemistry between the popular Wayne and O’Hara pairing is engaging and beautifully played as Kirby woos Kathleen all over again; the family is healed and reunited and, amid much galloping, massed war whoops and rapid gunfire, the rebellion providing the action-adventure background is put down, bringing peace to the frontier. It may not be John Ford’s best Western (no pun intended), but it’s still one of his finest, and a more-than-worthy closing volume to the classic Cavalry Trilogy.
[Editor’s note]: This piece was written by Jeremy Isaac, whose knowledge of the Western genre is unsurpassed. A brilliant features writer and sub-editor, Jeremy can be contacted via the following links for any possible freelance work: uk.linkedin.com/in/jerryjourno1 and jerryjourno58.wordpress.com/
Rio Grande is out now on Blu-ray in the UK from Eureka Entertainment as part of The Masters of Cinema Series.
BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES
- Limited Edition O-Card (2000 units only)
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray, from a new transfer completed by Paramount’s preservation department in 2019
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
- Brand new and exclusive feature-length audio commentary by western authority Stephen Prince
- Scene specific audio commentary with Maureen O’Hara
- A video essay on the film by John Ford expert and scholar Tag Gallagher
- Along the Rio Grande with Maureen O’Hara – archival documentary
- The Making of Rio Grande – archival featurette
- Theatrical trailer
- PLUS: a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by western expert Howard Hughes; a new essay by film writer Phil Hoad; transcript of an interview with John Ford; excerpts from a conversation with Harry Carey, Jr.
Posted on May 13, 2020, in Classic, Must-See, Western and tagged Ben Johnson, Eureka Entertainment, John Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Rio Grande, The Masters of Cinema Series. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
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