Rio Grande

Collaborators on over a dozen projects, some of them regarded as dramas, comedies, romances and war movies, it is with the western genre that both director John Ford and actor John Wayne are most associated individually and collectively. Wayne having worked as an uncredited extra for Ford early in his career, it was on Ford’s Stagecoach that Wayne made his breakthrough to major stardom, thirteen years into his career.

It was eleven years later that they would make Rio Grande together, the third part in what is called Ford’s loose “cavalry trilogy” after 1948’s Fort Apache and 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon although Ford had not intended to make another western immediately, preferring to move onto The Quiet Man, eventually released to great success in 1952, but having been persuaded by distributors Republic to make Rio Grande first on the agreement that they would subsequently finance The Quiet Man.

Reprising his role from Fort Apache, Wayne is Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke of the United States Cavalry, stationed in the Rio Grande Valley on the border between Texas and Mexico, defending the settlers there against incursions by the Apache tribes who shelter beyond their jurisdiction on the other side of the river where Yorke’s men cannot pursue them.

In need of additional men, Yorke receives only a tenth of what was requested, among them his teenage son Trooper Jefferson Yorke whom he has not seen for fifteen years and with whom he has no form of relationship; soon after, Yorke’s wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to arrange for Jefferson to be discharged, buying him out of his contract, Yorke fighting on two fronts when their fort is raided by a force made of three hostile tribes working together.

Released on Blu-ray for the first time by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection, Rio Grande was written by James Kevin McGuinness, based on James Warner Bellah’s short story Mission With No Record published in 1947 in the Saturday Evening Post, a film which played to the American audience of the time, the nation a decade past the Second World War and falling into both the Cold War and the Korean War and seeking an uncomplicated depiction of upright heroes victorious over enemy savages.

Wayne given the star billing as Yorke, Ford’s other performers include former child actor Claude Jarman, Jr who won a special Academy Award four years previously for The Yearling, Ben Johnson as Trooper Travis Tyree, Harry Carey, Jr as Trooper Daniel “Sandy” Boone, Victor McLaglen as Sergeant Major Quincannon and J Carrol Naish as General Philip Sheridan whose historical role is alluded to only obliquely.

Set in the summer of 1879, the “scorched earth” policy of the United States saw them destroying fertile croplands and killing livestock in order to starve or displace the native population; Kathleen Yorke having lost her plantation when the Shenandoah Valley was torched fifteen years previously at her husband’s order, her outrage and resentment is over the loss of her estate rather than the ongoing genocide.

Kathleen and the other women principally engaged in swooning in their bonnets whenever a threat is presented, it would be three years before Doris Day would star in Calamity Jane who could have taught them a thing about standing up for themselves, musical accompaniment instead provided by vocal group the Sons of the Pioneers, but it is the supporting cast who carry the emotion while the monotone Wayne is lost in the monochrome.

The perfect soldier, obeying orders without question or considering their morality and expecting the same of his men, Yorke’s only smile is when Sheridan orders him to break the treaty and burn the Apache out of their homes, and it is little wonder that America loved him so, the epitome of unreformed and unrepentant masculinity unbeaten by conflict or compromise.

Filmed in the impressive scenery around the Colorado River in Moab, Utah, the new transfer of Rio Grande also contains two commentaries, a video essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher, a twenty minute “making of” from 1993 hosted by a gushing Leonard Maltin and an interview with O’Hara from 2002, the latter two heavy on clips and light on information.

Rio Grande is released on Blu-ray by Eureka on Monday 6th April



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