John Ford (director)
06 April 2020 (released)
14 April 2020
For many (at one time that is) this Western would have been an almost unbeatable combination. John Wayne coupled with two actors who were to become forever closely associated with him: Maureen O'Hara (perhaps his best-liked leading lady) and Victor McLaglen - a favorite support.
Of course, let’s not forget the director who is most associated with Wayne: the near legendary John Ford. When one writes of John Wayne we should bear in mind the words of Maureen O'Hara: He was not just an actor. He was the United States of America!” So we are, in fact, talking about an institution. Times, however, change… although not that much. Wayne is forever associated with the Cowboy film rather like his early predecessors Tom Mix and William Boyd. In Wayne's heyday the poor old Native American really had no voice at all and were invariably depicted as barbaric savages. And in this 1950 offering things are unfortunately not much different – the only good thing one can say is that the Natives seem to be played by real American Indians as opposed to white actors (ever seen Brooklyn-born Chuck Connors playing Apache chief Geronimo?).
The year is 1879 and Wayne plays the mustached Lt. Colonel Kirby Yorke, a high-ranking cavalry officer attached to the Texas frontier to protect settlers from attacks from the Apaches. He is somewhat more than surprised when a new rookie turns up who has been assigned to his regiment… for he turns out to be his son Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr). The boy didn't do too well at the famous military academy West Point but promptly signed up for the cavalry - no doubt wishing to prove his manhood. Colonel Yorke of course is displeased at the boy's failure at West Point and therefore is not going to show him any favoritism (it's a hard world as we all know). Although outwardly tough he is the boy’s father and begrudgingly acknowledges Jefferson’s attitude to prove himself worthy. But it’s going to be a bumpy ride and some manly tests lay ahead for the boy, including his volunteering to jump on the backs of two horses after two ace riders have shown how it should be done. Well well, Jefferson nearly pulls it off after failing the jump. Next up is a fist-fight with another tough old soldier who has accused the boy of getting favors on realizing who he is. Despite the hurdles, Jefferson is coming through with flying colors and has the help of Victor McLaglen's wise old Sergeant Major Quincannon behind him. Soon Jefferson’s worried mother Kathleen (the redoubtable Maureen O'Hara) turns up and wants to get him out of the army but the boy is determined to stay and make his dad proud. Of course everyone thinks the world of Kathleen, a true earth mother if ever there was one and 'Duke' Wayne is the man all men secretly want to be. Or perhaps they don’t. Soon Kathleen is being serenaded on a regular basis by a group of cavalry officers (an actual professional harmony group called 'Sons of the Pioneers). She being Irish they inevitably sing 'I'll take you home again, Kathleen' as well as an Irish rebel song. This motif re-appears practically every time O'Hara enters a scene.
Young Jeffersons’ best friend in the troop is Travis Tyree (played by the stalwart Ben Johnson) and it is discovered that he has committed some dreadful misdemeanor before joining the army. We all know he's a swell guy really so rather than let him face a court martial Sergeant Quincannon turns his back when Tyree deserts stealing Col. Yorke's horse in the process. Jefferson is now given the onerous mission to take the camps’ women and children (including his Mum) in wagons across Apache territory (was there no other way?) and to safety in Fort Bliss. Meanwhile, Yorke receives visit from his former Civil War commander, Philip Sheridan (J. Carrol Nash) who orders Yorke and this troop to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico in pursuit of the Apache tribe. Furthermore he orders Yorke to kill the Natives – an action that will have serious political and diplomatic consequences. And yep, Yorke is threatened with a court-martial should things not pan out as ordered by Sheridan. Initially hesitant, Yorke takes his men towards Mexico, only to be informed that the very caravan which his son Jefferson and other soldiers were supposed to safeguard across dangerous territory were attacked by Apaches. Well, obviously they are going to be attacked by the Apaches and many will be slaughtered. Worse still, a wagonload full of children has been captured by the Indians! Somebody has got to take the perilous journey back to headquarters to get more men. No prizes for guessing who that will be? Can they hold out? Will he succeed? And is trooper Travis Tyree really the kind of man who'd do a bunk in a situation like this? Victor Young supplies the syrupy but apt score.
As with most of Ford's films this looks pretty good but would have been much better in Technicolor. If you want to see this team at their best, check out THE QUIET MAN. Meanwhile, RIO GRANDE should appeal to anyone around the 11 to 12 age group. Or serious John Wayne fans.
RIO GRANDE is the final entry in Ford and Wayne’s ‘Cavalry’ trilogy and is now being released newly restored and in Blu-ray format (with a Limited Edition O-Card slipcase run – 2000 units only). Among the various Bonus Material on offer we can see an interview with a still attractive Octogenarian O'Hara (unlike Wayne she never drunk or smoked) explaining some of the finer points you may missed. Remember the Alamo!