John Ford Feature #7 – Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GranRio_Grande_posterde (1950)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (based on Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarman Jr.

Finally, the final film in John Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy is upon us. After returning to the western genre after a brief wartime hiatus, Ford would deliver a great many more terrific western films, all of which brought something new to the table.  Rio Grande is the final film in his trilogy, but far from the last good western that Ford would direct.  The film comes after both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and features the only bit of continuity found in the entire thematic trilogy: John Wayne returns as Captain Kirby York, the progressive and forward-thinking main character in Fort Apache. The film was based on a short story found in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Mission With No Record, and written by James Warner Bellah.  Bellah’s short stories inspired the entirety of the cavalry trilogy, and he would even go on to co-write Ford’s terrific revisionist western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Rio Grande would be released the same year as Ford’s now celebrated Wagon Master, and would be his final western until the release of the highly acclaimed The Searchers in 1956.  The final film in the cavalry trilogy stars the aforementioned John Wayne as the grizzled Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (spelled differently in this film), and Maureen O’Hara as Kathleen Yorke, the estranged wife of the veteran.  O’Hara was often called “the finest actress in Hollywood” by Ford, but after a number of films together the working relationship between the two fell apart, and Ford came to resent O’Hara for reasons pretty much unknown. On top of the pairing of Wayne and O’Hara, the film stars Ford company regulars like Ben Johnson as Trooper Tyree, Harry Carey, Jr. as Trooper Daniel Boone, and Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Quincannon.  Rio Grande was a tremendous success financially, but as with many of Ford’s mid-career westerns, would be largely ignored by the awards circuit of the time.

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Rio Grande sees Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) now on the Texas frontier, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Yorke and his cavalry have been posted in Texas to defend against the threat of Apaches, but has recently seen Apaches taking sanctuary in Mexico, away from the threat of the U.S. cavalry. Yorke’s diminishing forces are threatened further by the lack of troops sent by his superiors.  Kirby’s son, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he hasn’t seen for years, has recently been added to the troop.  The addition of his son puts further stress on Yorke, as does the arrival of his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), who has come to pull her underage son out of the cavalry.  The Lt. Col. Yorke, not wanting to seem to favour his son, ends up treating the young man more harshly than the other troopers.  Jeff is taken in by two older cavalry members, Troopers Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.), who help him acclimate to the harsh conditions of the forces.  As both of young Jeff’s parents want something different for his future, they slowly begin to settle their differences and rekindle the love they once held for each other.  After a visit by the general of his department, Yorke and his motley crew are ordered to pursue the Apaches into Mexico and stop them from fleeing.  By crossing the United States border and chasing after the Apaches, Col. Yorke risks the careers and lives of himself and his young troopers.  The proud Kirby Yorke of course chooses to accept his new mission, despite the enormous odds working against his cavalry.  Will Yorke be successful by risking it all in order to save his marriage, get closer to his son, and protect his fellow countrymen?  Find out in John Ford’s installment in the cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande.

Trilogies are a funny thing, with even the best of them having a weak or flawed chapter or installment.  Unfortunately, Ford’s cavalry trilogy is no different, and Rio Grande ends up being closer in comparison to Return of the Jedi than Fort Apache’s Empire Strikes Back.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means, just a disappointment after the tremendous highs of the previous two films.  Where Fort Apache felt progressive and modern and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured stunning cinematography and an amazing performance by John Wayne, Rio Grande features very few standout elements.  John Wayne’s performance is solid as usual by this point in his career, but absolutely nothing to write home about.  Everything I came to love about Kirby York(e) in Fort Apache seemed to disappear almost entirely in this film.  York(e) feels like a completely separate, and far more bitter and cynical man than he did just two years prior.  Luckily, we have a very good performance by Maureen O’Hara to give us what Wayne’s York(e) fails to do.  There’s clearly a reason Ford was so fond of O’Hara for so many years; her screen presence and natural charm are undeniable.  The chemistry between O’Hara and Wayne is obvious, and it’s no wonder the two were featured in so many films together after this effort.  Unlike the previous year’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande is once again shot in black and white, which I found to be an odd touch.  The cinematography features Ford’s trademark use of shadows against the bleakness of the western plains, but lacks the flourishes that Yellow Ribbon featured prominently (and picked up an Oscar for, too).  The soundtrack isn’t nearly as memorable as those found in previous films either, and I sorely missed whistling sixty year old tunes in the days following my viewing of the film.  On the very good side, the set-piece at the film’s climax is remarkable and intense, and I longed for more of the siege-style warfare featured here.  When it suddenly ended on a high note, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t gone further.  All of these jumbled thoughts sums up exactly how I feel about Rio Grande: It’s a frustrating and largely mediocre experience in a package that has so much potential for greatness.

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Rio Grande isn’t a bad film by any means, it’s just not particularly memorable when compared directly to its predecessors.  It features good performances by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as a tremendous action set piece to close out the film, but lacks the punch of the previous two films.  The story is unique when compared to the others in the cavalry trilogy, but it just doesn’t go far enough with the story for the audience to care much.  John Ford’s mostly great cavalry trilogy doesn’t end with a whimper, but more of a tremendous sigh.  If you’re interested, view Rio Grande at your own discretion.

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