Tag Archives: Cavalry Trilogy

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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John Ford Feature #6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

SheworeayellowribbonpostShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Nugent, Laurence Stallings (based on The Big Hunt & War Party by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen

The second part of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy is a beautiful and sweeping technicolor dream, marking it one of the director’s very first full-color films.  The middle chapter in this spiritual series takes place immediately after the death of Commander George Armstrong Custer, who in real life died during the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon had the honor of being one of the most expensive western films ever produced up to 1949, and went on to be a smash hit for both John Ford and RKO Pictures.  The name of the film is listed from the classic and triumphant cavalry marching song of the same name, which makes an appearance or two in the movie.  The film was shot in beautiful color by cinematographer Winton Hoch, one of the originators of the technicolor format.  He won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his photography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a prize he had won the previous year for Joan of Arc, and would win again in 1952 for John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  John Ford would take on Hoch as a cinematographer for four other pictures, many of which are acclaimed for their cinematography.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon once again stars John Wayne, this time as Captain Nathan Brittles, as well as Joanne Dru as Olivia Dandridge, John Agar as Lieutenant Flint Cohill, and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree.  The film also stars Ford regulars Harry Carey Jr., and Victor McLaglen.  Apparently, the casting of John Wayne in the lead role was up in the air initially.  The character of Brittles was two decades older than Wayne was at the time, and Ford wasn’t certain of his long-time partner’s acting abilities.  After seeing Wayne in Howard Hawks’ classic Red River, Ford realized that John Wayne could act, and promptly changed his mind and finally decided on his lead star.

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As mentioned previously, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon begins immediately after the fall of Commander Custer and his cavalry troops in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is a man on the verge of retirement, but has been given one last major mission to carry out.  The mission is to lead his troops from their post in Fort Starke to ease tensions with Cheyenne and Arapaho forces following Custer’s Land Stand.  Things are further complicated when Brittles has to escort the Major’s wife and niece, Abbey Allshard (Mildred Natwick), and Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) along with them.  The women are accompanying the cavalry to a nearby post in order to avoid the incoming Indian War.  Two of Brittles’ soldiers, Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), become romantically interested in miss Dandridge along the way, further complicating matters.  After the apparent failure of both such missions, Brittles decides to retire and head back for his Fort.  After some deep thinking by the Captain as well as unnecessary bloodshed, Brittles rejoins his men and arranges for a face-to-face meeting with the important Chief Pony-That-Walks (Chief John Big Tree).  When things once again don’t go so well with the Chief, the cavalry must regroup and devise a plan to lead the Native American forces back to their reservations and ultimately avoid another senseless war.  Will Captain Brittles finally overcome the odds and make peace with the Native people, or will he be forced to see more violence and bloodshed before his retirement?  Find out in the second chapter in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is quite possibly the most beautiful film in the marathon so far.  I might be biased though, because I’ve always had a soft spot for technicolor.  I love how the format looks both a little too bright and a little washed out at the same time, it never fails to create incredible imagery that I’ll remember for a long time to come.  Not only is the photography by Winton Hoch spectacular, but the lead performance by John Wayne is absolutely something to behold.  Even though he’s playing a man much older than he was in real life, you believe that Captain Brittles is a tired old cavalry captain on the verge of retirement.  It’s easily one of the best performances I’ve seen Wayne give thus far, and I can’t wait to see more of his more celebrated performances as the marathon goes on.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is famous for being the moment that John Ford realized the acting potential in John Wayne after a twenty year partnership, and I can certainly imagine the “eureka” moment he must have had.  A scene where Brittles breaks the news about no longer leading the cavalry to their mission and receiving a medal from his troops is truly touching, and allows Wayne to display a rare instance of humanity in one of his characters.  Captain Brittles may not be as loveable as Wayne’s Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande, but the performance given more than makes up for that.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon tells a realistic story where not every plan goes the way that they’re supposed to, and watching Captain Brittles battle his frustrations and doubt himself is heartbreaking in moments.  The “overcoming the odds” story is often riddled with cliches and general cheesiness, but somehow this film manages to subvert the tired trope and become something unique.  When things finally start to go the way they’re supposed to, you can’t help but feel triumph along with the rest of the cavalry.  On top of the triumphant moments felt when Brittles does have things go his way, the film’s titular theme song helps move the action along and makes the adventure feel much more grand.  IT plays over and over and roars over the film’s greatest moments, and I can guarantee it’ll be stuck in your head for a week afterward.  I haven’t stopped whistling the tune since the credits rolled the first time around.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon doesn’t have the same level of comedy, redemption, or incredible action set pieces as seen in Fort Apache, but it’s still a more than worthy follow-up to a terrific trilogy opener.  

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The first two parts of John Ford’s famous cavalry trilogy have been terrific pieces of good old fashioned western films, bringing with them a grand sense of adventure, thrills, progressive attitudes towards the Native American peoples, and two terrific performances.  I can only hope that the closing film, Rio Grande, is half as good as these two are.  With its terrific John Wayne performance, beautiful technicolour photography, roaring score and theme song, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is everything you could ever want from the western genre.  There’s a great deal of fun to be had here, no matter how you feel about westerns or the films of John Ford.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is highly recommended.

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John Ford Feature #5 – Fort Apache (1948)

MV5BMjExMzk5MDI4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjAwODc0MQ@@._V1._CR43,88,254,363_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_Fort Apache (1948)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on Massacre by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Shirley Temple, John Agar

Just two years after the release of his widely successful western My Darling Clementine, John Ford decided to embark on the production of a loose trilogy of films.  Fort Apache is the first film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”, which includes She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), all three of which star frequent collaborator John Wayne.  The three films form a trilogy in name and in spirit only, not having any recurring characters or situations (except for John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York in Fort Apache and Rio Grande), with the exception of all films dealing with the United States cavalry battling Native American armies on some level.  Fort Apache, much like its successor My Darling Clementine, did not fare well on the awards circuit, but was still widely critically acclaimed upon its release.  Looking at the list of winners and nominees at that year’s major awards shows, it seems as if there was something of a stigma against traditional western films, with critics and audiences instead gravitating towards literary adaptations like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which won Best Picture in 1948, groundbreaking visual dramas like The Red Shoes, and film noirs like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo.  Luckily for Ford’s legacy, the film was a hit with audiences and the cavalry trilogy as a whole is now considered one of the many high points of his prolific career.  Fort Apache stars longtime Ford collaborator John Wayne in his first of two appearances as Kirby York, My Darling Clementine star and future Oscar winner Henry Fonda, as well as child star Shirley Temple in one of her final film roles before retirement.  Other frequent John Ford supporting players Ward Bond and star of The Informer Victor McLaglen also make notable appearances.

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Fort Apache takes place after the end of the American Civil War in or around the state of Arizona, circa the late 1800’s.  We meet Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), a decorated Civil War veteran who looks to replace the current commander at an isolated United States cavalry outpost, Fort Apache. Unfortunately for York, the position was unknowingly given to Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), who has traveled to the outpost with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple).  York and other cavalry soldiers are understandably upset when they learn the news, mostly due to Thursday’s lack of experience with the Native American population settled in the area near Fort Apache.  Not only does Thursday lack the experience with the Native population, but he is also quickly outed as a class-conscious bigot with no remorse at all for the Native American’s, who are led by the great Cochise (Miguel Inclan).  Thursday’s daughter, Philadelphia, quickly falls in love with the young and handsome Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke (John Agar).  The budding romance is quickly squashed by Philadelphia’s father, who forbids any man he doesn’t consider a gentleman from seeing his daughter.  After learning of Owen Thursday’s disapproval, O’Rourke’s father Sergeant Major O’Rourke (Ward Bond), also a veteran of the Civil War, comes to blows with the bigoted commander of Fort Apache.  After learning of unrest by the Apache Natives, Commander Thursday ignores the advice of Kirby York, and decides to battle the forces of Cochise in the hills.  York, aware and sympathetic of the skilled Apache warriors, stands aside to watch an almost certain disaster take place in the hills near Fort Apache.  Will the bigoted Owen Thursday and his cavalry forces defeat the far more experienced Apache warriors, or will Thursday’s prideful ignorance lead to his and hundreds of his soldier’s untimely demise?  Find out in John Ford’s classic Fort Apache.

Though it may come off as extremely old-fashioned in its politics and archaic views of race relations, Fort Apache was actually quite a progressive film at the time of its release.  John Wayne’s Captain York is very sympathetic towards the struggles of the Native American population in the area, and suggests to his commander that the cavalry treat Cochise and his men with the utmost respect and civility, but Fonda’s Lt. Colonel Thursday is having none of it.  Henry Fonda, one of the seemingly nicest men in Hollywood, is playing extremely out of type in Fort Apache as the prejudiced and incredibly strict Owen Thursday.  This makes Fonda’s performance all the more impressive, because I found myself outright hating Thursday in several moments of the film, especially when leading his men into a battle they know they will lose in the name of ignorance.  I’ve never actively rooted against a character played by Fonda, and to see him pull off such an impressive transformation made me fall in love with the film even more than I already had.  John Wayne’s Kirby York is the perfect counterbalance, bringing logic and a strong-willpower to the table.  It’s clear that York is the superior and more worthy leader of the titular Fort Apache, and for him to be as restrained as he is was both frustrating and admirable at the same time.  Although Wayne was mostly playing himself as York, the performance is still very good and offers a character to really get behind.  On top of two incredible lead performances, Ford’s filming of action and battle sequences is incredible, giving weight to every fallen cavalry soldier and Native American warrior, and making every shot fired worthwhile.  For a film shot thirty years before the era of action blockbusters even began, the action set pieces are incredibly well-paced and have a perfect mixture of wonder and gravity to them.  Fort Apache also brings with it a surprising amount of comedy, especially in its early cavalry training sequences.  John Ford has a knack for subtle humour in films that don’t appear to be comedic in any way at first glance, and it never fails to add a little something to his films for me.  Lastly, while not being something I usually praise or comment on in great detail, the sets and costume design in Fort Apache are absolutely something to behold.  The sets are furthered by the incredible black and white cinematography that captures the beauty and bleakness of the plains featured prominently in the film.  The uniforms worn by the cavalry look very accurate as far as I can tell, and it absolutely helps immerse you deeper into the film.

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As a whole, Fort Apache is easily one of my favorite films of the marathon thus far.  Its progressive attitude towards race relations between the Americans and Native Americans is something to be admired for the time period, the performances by both Henry Fonda and John Wayne are terrific and career-defining, and the direction of massive action set pieces by John Ford rivals some of the great action sequences in films made today.  It is clear that John Ford was most comfortable in the western genre, and I can’t wait to dive even further into his catalog of great westerns.  Fort Apache is highly recommended.

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