The last film in John Ford’s ‘cavalry trilogy’ proved to be an afterthought rather than a planned event. For nearly a year Ford had shopped around his script idea for The Quiet Man. But even with his illustrious track record and cache as a proven money maker, and with John Wayne already signed on as part of the package, the caustic Ford could not find a studio to back his latest project. At RKO the director had made Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949); both wildly successful. But RKO was in steep decline and not particularly interested in shooting a melodrama on location. So they too balked at Ford’s offer to direct The Quiet Man.
Ford eventually found a kindred spirit in Republic Pictures president, Herbert Yates…well, sort of. Yates had zero interest in The Quiet Man as a viable property. But he did have immeasurable faith in John Ford as a film maker. If the two could agree on Ford to direct another western for his studio first, then Yates would agree to fund The Quiet Man. This was Yates hedging his bets. Republic, a ‘poverty row’ studio always on the edge of financial receivership, needed a sure fire box office winner to keep their bottom line in the black and what better assurance than a John Ford western? They always made money.
Ford willingly agreed to these terms, then set out to make one of the most memorable western movies in his body of work. In one of Hollywood’s ironies, The Quiet Man would eventually become the highest grossing movie Republic Pictures ever made.
Viewed today, Rio Grande (1950) stands as an iconic example of just how far John Ford had matured the western mystique beyond its early days of cowboys vs. Indians. There is a patina of human frailty that follows the film’s characters throughout the story. Ford re-envisions heroism in no less heroic terms. But it’s not the gallant stride of a bigger than life western legend astride his noble steed that greets our eyes, rather a world weary traveller estranged from his family after being forced to choose between the love of a good woman and his sworn duty to defend his country.
These are just some of the tough choices made by John Wayne’s character Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke and both Wayne and Ford are determined to show us the human cost of that strained relationship. Kirby carries with him the noblest sense of personal pride. But he also realizes what his profession has cost him and it is perhaps much more than he originally intended to give. That’s a very sobering and frankly unglamorous perspective on the oft romanticized life in the saddle and it is for this stark realism that Rio Grande is as highly regarded and fondly remembered today.
Rio Grande (initially titled Rio Bravo) was scripted by James Kevin McGuinness from a short story ‘Mission With No Record’ by James Warner Bellah. We open, not at the beginning of a hero’s journey but at the end of a very solemn campaign against the marauding Apaches that has cost the regiment several of its finest officers. In these initial scenes John Ford fills the frame with a magnificent pageantry of fighting men on horseback. But their backs are arched, their shoulders slumped and they are trudging through a mesmerizing cloud of Texas frontier dust; the careworn faces of their women lingering like a chain of pale ghost flowers along the sparse parameter of windswept trees that barely shade from the intense heat.
Understaffed in his ambitious assignment to maintain peace, Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne) strives to civilize this barren landscape. But the strain of battle has begun to show. Its 1879 and Kirby’s not a young man anymore. He’s a warrior whose battle scars are not immediately apparent to the naked eye. But scarred he is. Wayne and Ford play upon Kirby’s inner void and marry it to the beginning of a great man’s physical decline. Even if we don’t realize it yet, Kirby already knows that his days as an officer are numbered. He will either die in battle or be forced into retirement by the ravages of time.
Kirby’s past catches up to him sooner than anticipated with the arrival of Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), the son he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. Jeff’ is one of eighteen new recruits sent as backup to the fort. His arrival is both a joy and a disappointment to Kirby who initially deals with the boy more harshly to quash any hint of favouritism that might be rumoured among the rest of the men. Although he’s come to honour his country, in effect following in his father’s footsteps, Trooper Yorke is also a West Point drop out. Still, the boy possesses certain qualities that endear him not only to his father but the rest of the men in his troop.
In the meantime, Kirby’s estranged wife, Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to have Jeff released from the army by special decree from a commander. But Jeff refuses to go, reminding his mother that he must also sign off on the decree in order for it to become a legal discharge. Thwarted in her efforts, Kathleen chooses to remain at the outpost to be near Jeff. Reluctantly, she becomes reacquainted with Kirby in his tent. Although brittle toward each other, it is nevertheless obvious that Kirby and Kathleen are still very much in love. Kathleen resents the decision Kirby had to make earlier, to torch her ancestral home of ‘Bridesdale’ in the Shenandoah Valley. She holds Kirby’s right hand man, Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) equally responsible for obeying Kirby’s orders then, but here too Kathleen’s heart has not entirely hardened.
Quincannon oversees a skirmish between Jeff and Trooper Heinze (Fred Kennedy), after Heinze accuses Jeff of being given special treatment, but also refers to him as the pet of a dumb ‘Mick’ sergeant. When the brawl is broken up by Kirby, Jeff respectfully declines to tell his father the reasons for it in the first place. Told by Quincannon that it is a soldier’s fight, Kirby steps aside. But Heinze has reconsidered Jeff’s fidelity to the regiment. The two shake hands and are friendly toward each other. Jeff retires to his tent to treat his wounds. But Quincannon has not forgotten Heinze’s slight against him and knocks Heinze unconscious as retribution.
The next day Jeff is afforded a period of recovery and allowed to sleep in. He awakens to find his fellow recruits, Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel ‘Sandy’ Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) at his side. Travis is on the run from the law for having killed a man in self-defence. The U.S. Deputy Marshall (Grant Withers) arrives to take Travis into custody. But men loyal to Travis help him escape into the hills.
In the meantime, Kirby is visited by his former Civil War commander, Philip Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish) who orders him to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico and engage the Apaches. The move is a bold and gutsy one in that it violates Mexico’s sovereignty and will likely lead to Kirby’s court-martial. Sheridan buffers Kirby’s decision by reinforcing for him that the members of the court will be comprised of the same soldiers who rode with them into battle down the Shenandoah, thereby affording Kirby some marked leeway if and when he is likely to plead his case. Kirby agrees to these terms and sets out to face the Apache threat.
But his mission is compromised when he learns that the wagon train of children being taken to Fort Bliss for protection has been ambushed by the Apaches in their absence. Assigning Jeff, Boone and Travis (who has joined the officers after having hid out in the hills from the law) to take the remote town where the Apache are hold up with the children, Kirby takes his cavalry forces into a full scale battle against the Indians that ends with his being wounded. Victorious perhaps, but infinitely wiser about the more precious intangibles of life, Kirby is dragged back to the fort on a travois.
John Ford recreates the film’s opening sequence, the long weary cavalcade of men on horseback returning to the fort after their triumph. Only this time we see Kathleen among the emotionally scarred and anxiety ridden. In a moment of beautifully understated reflection, Kathleen eyes Kirby on his travois and reaches for his hand. “Our boy did well,” he tells her as the two go off, engulfed by a dusty cloud raised from the battalion’s horses.
Rio Grande is a perennially satisfying western classic. It manages to capture that mythological essence and grandeur of the old west without its clichés. John Ford, who arguably never felt more at home than in the western milieu, herein extols the vices as well as the virtues of human sacrifice, ascribing no personal or moral weight to the exercise, while nevertheless instilling his audience with a definite sense of propriety about his central character.
It has already been stated many times in the annals of film history, but bears reiteration herein, that the world will never again see the likes of a hero as robust or satisfying as John Wayne. Before Wayne there were expert stuntmen and real life cowboys who made their mark in the western movie. But their staying power was eclipsed once Wayne came onto the scene. Perhaps it isn’t Wayne’s larger than life filmic persona, of even his private views as a public figure that we best remember today.
It is the essence of the man – some strange and elusive quality that defies logic or even identification, except to say that once seen on the screen he can never be forgotten. That is star power in its purest form, and a veritable elixir in today’s vapid celebrity culture awash with cheap imitations that cannot hold a candle to Wayne’s cultural legacy. John Wayne is at the very heart of what we think of when we utter the word ‘America’: the two sharing in a symbiotic union of their overriding visions and promise for a more hopeful and prosperous future carved from the roughhewn wilds of that everlastingly fictionalized west.
It must also be stated that Maureen O’Hara is the idyllic contemporary to Wayne’s celebrated masculinity. In every way she represents something of that proudly defiant, yet unerringly compassionate complement; forever striving, struggling, living and loving with a heart as big as the canyons her western martyrs have frequently inhabited. It also helps matters that off camera, O’Hara has remained the epitome of a very great lady.
John Ford greatly admired her as an actress and viewing Rio Grande today it’s easy to see why. She brings to the character of Kathleen all of the conflicted disillusionment of a woman scorned, but who refuses to succumb to mere bitterness in order to survive. The restrained depth in O’Hara’s performance is staggering to behold and fleshes out her character in all sorts of fascinating ways without the luxury of many spoken lines.
Rio Grande may not be John Ford’s most memorable or even his best movie; but it is one of his most poignant, largely because of the chemistry between Wayne and O’Hara. The film would be nothing without either star, although in hindsight it’s safe to say that neither would have endured today without the caustic guidance and appreciation of John Ford.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an improvement on the tiresome and problematic DVD from Artisan released two decades ago. The gray scale is much improved, slightly darker as it should be, and shows much more fine detail to its best advantage. By my eye a few of the sequences in the film still look slightly soft, although I am unable to deduce whether this softness is part of the source material or something that occurred during the 1080p mastering process.
Also, film grain occasionally looks slightly digitized. Again, this oversight is not monumentally distracting. In fact, on monitors less than 65 inches it probably won’t even be noticed. A slight hint of edge enhancement persists but is also unobtrusive. The audio has been remastered in mono and is very pleasing. The only extra is a ‘making of’ featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin that is at least fifteen years old and looks about twice as bad in 480i. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)