Rio Grande: John Ford brought John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara together for the first time in this final film in his ‘Cavalry’ trilogy

“Wayne’s greatest achievement may have been creating John Wayne. The character he played, the character he invented, was the American persona of the man who is hard and believes in doing right and will do it against all the odds.”

Charlton Heston on John Wayne

Rio Grande (1950), the third and final film in John Ford’s ‘Cavalry’ trilogy, brought John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara together for the first time on the big screen.

John Ford’s filmography is a perfect example of how branding and artist as a right winger or left winger or liberal or conservative is such a foolhardy exercise. Ford has made films that would fit into several political ideologies, sometimes a single film features conflicting political point of views, but it’s widely accepted that after returning from World War II, Ford made mostly ‘liberal’ movies that took a humane approach towards the depiction of Native Americans and minorities as well as subtly critiquing the racism, class consciousness and imperialist tendencies in post-war American society. It doesn’t mean that he was becoming a left-winger, but may have been merely endorsing values like fairness and decency, which he considered basic to the American system. Though never consciously intended to be a trilogy, the three Cavalry’ westerns that Ford made back to back from 1948 to 1950- Fort Apache, She wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande– are connected by a uniform theme: the travails of the American cavalry involved in wars with the “Indian Nations” in the aftermath of civil war and through United States’ westward expansion; and also by the presence of John Wayne, who played the lead role in all these three films. While, the first two are considered two of Ford’s undisputed classics, the history and legacy of the third is more complicated. Ford never intended to be a third film in the trilogy; Ford’s intend was to make another film, his dream project called The Quiet Man which he wanted to shoot in color, and on location in Ireland, which would prove expensive. And despite the fact that he had already lined up John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara to play the lead roles, he couldn’t get financial backing for the project. That’s when his protégée and frequent collaborator, John Wayne, came to his rescue. Wayne went to Herbert Yates- the head of his home studio, Republic Pictures- and persuaded him that allowing the great John Ford to make The Quiet Man at Republic would add much prestige to the studio. Yates agreed on the condition that Ford first make a film along the lines of his successful “Cavalry” Westerns. So Ford came up with Rio Grande, a relative quickie; to be shot in black and white and in just 32 days in Moab, Utah. The film was treated as an exercise by John Ford- one of his “vacation pictures”. The budget was half of the production costs for Fort Apache (1948), hence he couldn’t afford to shoot in his favorite “Monument Valley”, and no one, Ford included, seemed to take the project very seriously.

Like Fort Apache, Rio Grande was also based on a Saturday Evening Post story by James Warner Bellah. Bellah was a known right-winger who was famous for his extreme views of the Native Americans as well as the communists; he equated the two “reds scares” in his stories which were published at the time when America was gripped with “red phobia” and the film industry was under attack from HUAC. While Fort Apache was retooled by eminent screenwriter and frequent Ford collaborator, Frank S. Nugent, by cutting down Bellah’s racist views against the Apaches, in the case of Rio Grande- not scripted by Nugent- Ford let much of Bellah’s views intact. Some argue that this was because Ford was becoming more conservative during the time due to the activities of HUAC and the ongoing Korean war; Star John Wayne who plays Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke in the film always claimed that Ford intended this to be an allegory for the Korean conflict: In the film, the Apaches come across the border to make their attacks, and then go back over the border where the cavalry weren’t supposed to go. In Korea the Communists were making their raids into South Korea and then going back to the North. Wayne felt that the American forces should have gone after them, and that’s what Yorke did in Rio Grande—and it was the right thing to do. Another point of view is that since Ford didn’t care much about the film, he didn’t take any extra efforts to polish the script. and just got the film done as quickly as possible so that he could tackle his dream project, The Quiet Man. Whatever the reasons, Rio Grande has the most unsympathetic portrayal of the Native Americans in a post-WWII Ford Western. But it also must be said that this whole Cavalry Vs Indians element is the not the most important theme of the film; it’s more like an add-on to please the studio and give the film some thrills and action, and the look and feel of a conventional Western. The real story that the film tells is that of an ageing soldier looking back at the successes and failures of is life; the sacrifices he had to make in his personal life to build up a sterling career as a professional soldier; and what happens when he gets an opportunity to rectify some of the mistakes he committed in his life when his wife and son (whom he thought he had lost forever) comes back into his life. John Wayne gives one of his most brilliantly gentle, romantic and vulnerable performances as the aging Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (with an extra ‘e’ to separate him from the Kirby York who served under the arrogant, Col. Thursday in Fort Apache(1949)), who tries to reconnect with his wife and son (whom he hasn’t seen for almost 15 years) even as he’s engaged in a war with some renegade Apaches who are mounting guerilla attacks on his fort from across the border in Mexico. The film also has a coming of age tale involving Kirby’s young son, Trooper Jefferson “Jeff” Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), who is one of 18 recruits sent to the regiment under Kirby’s command. Jeff had flunked out of West Point, but immediately enlisted as a private in the Army. Jeff is befriended by a pair of older recruits, Travis Tyree (who is on the run from the law) and Daniel “Sandy” Boone, played respectively by members of “Ford stock company” Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who take him under their wings and teaches him the ways of the army. There’s also Victor McLaglen playing Sergeant Major Quincannon- a character he played in all three “Cavalry” films- who becomes the protector of the young Jeff.

But the real heart and soul of the film is the love story between Kirby and his estranged wife Kathleen, played by John Wayne’s favorite leading lady: the feisty, luscious “redhead” Maureen O’Hara. This was the first time Wayne and O’Hara were paired, and they would go on to make 4 more; their next film, The Quiet Man, being the best of their pairings. Wayne loved working with O’Hara. and he and O’Hara enjoyed a mutual respect and fondness for each other. O’Hara was making her first picture for John Ford since How Green Was My Valley. Wayne and O’Hara had met at Ford’s house in May 1941, and found that their friendship carried over into their working process, although O’Hara was appalled at Ford’s cruelty toward Wayne, which she termed “vicious . . . extremely severe.” Wayne and O’Hara play estranged couples, who were driven apart by the American civil war; Kirby, who was a union soldier at the time, was forced to torch Kathleen’s plantation home- “Bridesdale”-  in Shenandoah valley as part of the Yankees’ scorched earth policy. This incident drove them apart, and they haven’t seen each other for 15 years, that’s until Kathleen arrives at Kirby’s fort to take their underage son Jeff home by buying him out of his enlistment. Right from the moment Kathleen and Kirby sets eyes upon each other (again), sparks fly, it’s like those 15 years of absence never existed between them; outwardly, they try to project a sense of antagonism, but their deep love for each other is very palpable. Kirby has her escorted to his quarters, but he denies her request to take Jeff out of enlistment. Jeff too refuses to abide by Kathleen’s wishes, thus forcing her to remain in the fort. But Kathleen is determined, and even as she continues to live on the fort like an army bride, she continues to clash with Kirby over his servitude to the army, which she believes destroyed her family, and she does not want their son to suffer the same fate as theirs. There are several moments in the film where we find Kathleen and Kirby attempting to rekindle their romance, or rather, trying to externalize their love that’s buried deep within them, but their inherent stubbornness stops them from consummating it. By the way, it was Sergeant Quincannon who put the torch to Bridesdale, and he is still with Yorke and is a constant reminder to Kathleen of the episode. Kathleen never loses an opportunity to belittle Quincannon in public by calling him an “arsonist”. Thus, in its central situation of an estranged husband and wife whose essential passion for each other is never compromised, the film is a dry run for the central narrative of The Quiet Man, except, there it will be about a newly married couple trying to start a new life, but pulled apart by tribal\family issues, here it’s an older married couple pulled apart by war and duty towards the country.

Unfortunately, the film shifts gears in the last act, from this very engaging and endearing family\love story into a predictable Cavalry vs Indians Western, as Kirby is assigned by his superiors to carry out a raid on the Apaches hiding out in Mexico; Apaches attacked a convoy of women and children being headed for Fort Bliss; they killed a lot of the women, and stole the children, whom they have taken to their hideout in Mexico. It’s a court-martial offence to cross the border into Mexico on an unofficial military mission, but Kirby is assured by his superior that if his mission becomes public, he will be dealt with leniency. Kirby and his regiment – which includes his son Jeff and the runaway outlaw Tyree- crosses Rio Grande and ambushes the church in which Apaches are holding the children. After a lengthy gun battle, Kirby is successful in his mission, but he is severely wounded by an arrow, which Jeff pulls out from Kirby’s chest, thus solidifying the “blood bond” between father and son. Ford shows good taste in toning down this section from the source story; in Bellah’s story, both father and son are wounded by a single bullet. But the action scenes in the film just doesn’t have the verve and bravura of the usual Ford movies. The action is constantly speeded up by under-cranking the camera; also, a lot of the plot points like the stealing of the children and the defeat of the Apaches in the climax are glossed over; there’s a lack of clarity regarding these events as they are never made clear visually. There are two scenes in the film which Ford would recycle far more effectively in his masterpiece, The Searchers(1956); first, where a soldier finds the brutalized remains of his wife, whom he had said goodbye just a few moments ago; and second, in the climax where Kirby and his soldiers wait out with their horses as Tyree and Jeff sneak into the church to rescue the children, and the soldiers come charging in after a kid starts sounding the church-bell. Ford did design one exciting action set piece for the film: Roman riding- soldiers riding two horses while standing up, one foot on each horse, for which Harry Carey Jr. and Claude Jarman mastered the difficult and dangerous stunt and did it without doubles, though Ford doesn’t do full justice to their efforts by shooting them in long shots. All this to say Ford doesn’t look much interested in lot many aspects of this film. And although “Rio Grande” does not lack strong themes: a son trying to earn the love of a forbidding father, a particularly mature portrait of a relationship between a married couple who love each other but can’t live together; it lacks the depth of feeling, the mood, and atmosphere that Ford infused into the other two cavalry pictures, possibly because, neither Ford or Wayne really wanted to make it, and it was a job done without much passion.

But Ford on auto-pilot is still much better than other directors in their peak form, so the film still pack enough moments to merit its status as a classic today. Like the way Ford uses the “Sons of the Pioneers”, who were foisted on an appalled Ford by the studio for purely commercial reasons. Ford uses them as a sort of musical Greek chorus, cavalry style. There’s an unspoken passion and devotion between Kirby and Kathleen that’s captured in the contemplative expressions on their faces as they listen to a serenade of “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” ; they signify the lost promises that Kirby made to Kathleen at their wedding, and it appears that he has got a second chance to take Kathleen back again to her home, which he had once bunt down. “My gal is purple” is set against one of the most beautiful moments in the film, where we find Kirby reminiscing about Kathleen while walking on the shores of Rio Grande. The superb photography and John Wayne’s magnificent performance in the scene transforms the moment into pure cinematic poetry and makes it one of the all-time greatest scenes in Ford’s oeuvre. This is topped by the scene that immediately follows the above scene, in which Kirby returns to camp and finds Kathleen there; she emerges out of the darkness in the candle-light as if she has emerged from Kirby’s dreams. Kirby cannot hold himself back and he takes her into his arms and kisses her passionately; again a prelude to the epic kiss that Wayne and O’Hara shares in The Quiet Man. The film also begins and ends with typical Ford sequences: in the beginning, we find the exhausted cavalry, led by Kirby, coming back from a mission; the captured Apache prisoners are on horseback, the wounded soldiers are on travois; they are met by the women of the fort, who gather to see if their men have survived. At the end, we get the same image, and in the group of women waiting for their men is Kathleen, who has by now capitulated to her husband’s way of life, and this time an injured Kirby is on a travois. She holds Kirby’s hand as she joins her son in walking back to the fort; the reunion of the husband and wife also signifies the reunion between the North and South and the birth of a united American nation, a common theme in all John Ford films.

When the film was released, it proved profitable, thus enabling Ford to make The Quiet Man that way he intended. It’s another matter that The Quiet Man became a much bigger success than Rio Grande and netted Ford his fourth Oscar as Director. Also, Wayne’s rapport with O’Hara in Rio Grande and two later films for Ford make the most satisfying male-female relationship in the director’s entire body of work. As for Ford’s politics, as i mentioned at the beginning, it remains ambivalent. He was a militarist, opposed to Communist aggression, but he was not above critiquing the army for its failures and the toll it took on personal relationships. One feel a strong autobiographical connection in the character of Kirby Yorke for Ford; a failed family man who’s more interested in his profession, but has an intense yearning for his family. As for John Wayne, the film only proved beneficial; it further solidified his box office appeal as well as the “John Wayne persona” that Charlton Heston spoke about in a 1979 interview and is quoted at the beginning of this piece. It was a persona that Marion ‘Duke’ Morrison invented and aspired to become all throughout his life. “Rio Grande” came during a golden period in Wayne’s career, when he had revitalized his career with a series of successful films where he played mature characters that showcased his acting talent, like Red River, Fort Apache, She wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima etc. In 1950, Wayne topped the list of the top ten box-office stars of that year. He would stay in the top ten for the next twenty years.

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