Thursday, October 24, 2013

John Ford's "Rio Grande"

Apparently in 1950 John Ford was itching to make "The Quiet Man" but Republic Pictures didn't have much faith in the project and insisted he make "Rio Grande" first to help finance the picture. And although the Irish film proved a bigger box office success, "Rio Grande" is nevertheless one of the great Westerns of the period.
Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) is a lieutenant colonel stationed near the Mexican border after the Civil War, charged with protecting the area from marauding injuns. It is a hard life and into his troop one day walks new recruit Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman), his estranged son who he hasn't seen for 15 years. He is followed by his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) who hates the army life and all it stands for, determined to buy her son back out of the army.
One of the main stars of the film is the wonderful Monument Valley with its magnificent hoodoos. (The crew apparently stayed in quite primitive conditions at a location called Goulding's Trading Post, which I must visit someday) Rugged, uncompromising and mysterious, the scenery is a perfect backdrop for Wayne, though one of the themes of the film is how the seemingly intractable positions held by humanity (O'Hara) and duty (Wayne) blur during the course of the film.
"Rio Grande" is not merely an Injun film, though there is none of the ambiguity attributed to the Injuns' motives as in "The Searchers." These Injuns are bad, "savages," as one character puts them and their eventual routing is quite predictable. The strength of the film lies in the chemistry between Wayne and O'Hara and the questions posed. Wayne had burned O'Hara's homestead to the ground 15 years previously during the Civil War - the cause of the estrangement - on army orders. "I wonder how history will view Shenandoah," Wayne asks at one stage. To him, it was a necessary evil. To O'Hara it was an act of cruelty.
There is a lot of comedy in the film too, mainly provided by the soon-to-become Squire Danagher, Victor McLaglen, as the Sergeant in charge of the recruits. McLaglen was once a heavyweight boxer of some note and, despite popular misconception (much of it fostered by McLaglen himself) he hadn't an ounce of Irishness in him, despite his constant casting as a dim-witted but lovable Irish rogue.
"Rio Grande" is the third and, in my opinion, best of John Ford's three cavalry pictures - "Fort Apache" and "She wore a yellow ribbon" were the other two - and is interesting as the first pairing of Wayne and O'Hara. Most critics seem to disagree, placing "Rio Grande" third in the trilogy. There are a few niggly problems - mainly due to the fact that most of the songs in the film were actually written post 1870s, though Quincannon's tears during the singing of "The Bold Fenian Men" is a delight! Wayne continues his emergence from being a one-dimensional actor to a multi-faceted anti-hero and, all in all, "Rio Grande" is a much under-rated film.

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