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Cult Column: Rio Grande

I was surprised after a recent viewing of John Ford’s Rio Grande to find that the film has a rather middling reputation, regarded as a second-tier work. It is admittedly true that he only made the film in return for being allowed to make 1952’s The Quiet Man. That film is clearly the more involved production, but outside of the atypical John Wayne role it has little interest. It spends far too much time with the ethnic comedy of its salt-of-the-earth Irish caricatures at the expense of what might have been an interesting romance. Rio Grande, by contrast, is a lean affair, shot in just 32 days.

Rio Grande was the third in Ford’s ‘Cavalry’ trilogy, following Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949). Those films were fairly serious, critical looks at authority and a kind of masculinity whose time had passed. However, they were also marred by the same broad comic relief of The Quiet Man, mostly from Victor McLaglen’s Irish mugging (though McLaglen was Scottish not Irish). Rio Grande has some comic relief, but it is not ethnicity-based and is generally understated, so it does not stick out so egregiously as it did before.

The narrative, like the other films in the trilogy, is concerned with authority and masculinity. John Wayne plays Lt. Kirby Yorke, a stern commander of an army regiment who is known for his unerring sense of duty and is greatly respected by the soldiers under his command. This sternness has soured his relationships with his wife and son, however, whom he has not seen in numerous years. The film’s plot mostly revolves around the reconciliation between the three after his son Jeff enlists under his command after failing at the military academy. Yorke’s estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara) comes to the camp to buy Jeff out of the army, but she requires the signature of both the boy and the commander, neither of whom agrees.

Through this simple premise, Ford brings the domestic troubles which had been on the periphery of Apache and Ribbon into the core of the drama. There isn’t a great deal more to the drama than that, but watching Wayne and O’Hara gradually let their guards down and rediscover their love for each other makes for greatly pleasurable viewing. The two of them exhibit genuine chemistry, which I never thought I would see from Wayne.

Outside of this central dynamic, there is also trouble with one of the new recruits (Ben Johnson, who also did fantastic work in Ford’s other 1950 movie, Wagon Master) being wanted by the authorities for manslaughter. There is also the threat posed by a nearby group of Apaches. This all culminates in a climax involving rescuing captives from the hands of the Native Americans which is thrillingly executed, despite some tonal problems, but also admittedly symptomatic of Hollywood’s racist attitudes towards Native Americans. Ford throughout his career both perpetuated these attitudes as well as questioned them (to varying degrees of success). Although this instance isn’t as egregious as the climax of Stagecoach, it still unquestioningly places the white soldiers on the side of good against the ‘savage’ (in the film’s view) Native Americans.

Despite this, Rio Grande is mostly an uncomplicated affair that offers simple, enjoyable viewing. It may not have the grand sweep of The Searchers or the rambunctious adventure of Stagecoach, but it is still worthwhile viewing that proves even to a sceptic like myself that John Ford knew how to craft a movie.

Image “John Ford” by Tsuru1111 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0