Rio Grande was the third John Ford/John Wayne film about the U.S. cavalry, derived like its predecessors from stories by James Warner Bellah. The film puts Wayne in an age bracket between the youthful captain of Fort Apache (1948) and the veteran of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949). The middle-aged Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke here has a moustache and a small pointed beard on his upper chin. This is the only beard Wayne has worn on screen apart from appearing heavily unshaven as in Texas Terror (1935) and Back to Bataan (1945). Recurring character names provide cross-links between the three films -- two have a Doctor Wilkins and a soldier named Tyree, all three have a Sergeant Quincannon -- but these are not developed and there is no firm indication that Wayne is playing the Kirby York of Fort Apache in Rio Grande . The name is now spelt Yorke and there are no references back to the incidents in the earlier film and another event entirely, dating from the Civil War, is raised from this Yorke's past. They might as well be different men.
The film is particularly memorable for the first casting of Maureen O'Hara opposite Wayne. There is a powerful chemistry between them -- both stubborn, she proud and aggressive, he strong, tender and reserved -- that has made their five screen appearances together as memorably pleasurable as the more widely appreciated collaborations of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. O'Hara is as much a woman's woman as Wayne is a man's man, both insisting on fulfulling their roles as they see them with inevitable conflict. Except in The Quiet Man (1952), this conflict is one of career versus the home; and in every film it falls on O'Hara to accept a woman's place in a man's world to effect a reconciliation.
Here Wayne has put duty before love and, back in the Civil War, he has followed orders to set fire to his wife's plantation. She has never forgiven him and they have been separated for fifteen years only to be brought together again when their son Jeff is posted to serve under his father. Wayne is disappointed that his son has failed at West Point, and tells him that, having now enlisted, he can expect no special favors. But he hovers around protectively, watching with concern as his son attempts to ride two horses standing up and takes a fall; appearing at the hospital window to watch with amusement as castor oil is administered to the bruised youngster after a fight that he has allowed to continue.
Maureen O'Hara turns up at the camp to reclaim her son. She announces herself as "Trooper Jeff Yorke's mother" and not the wife of the commanding officer. But her eyes moisten as Wayne comes forward to meet her and takes her arm to escort her back to his quarters. Wayne proves obstinate when she explains the reason for her visit telling him she will buy Jeff's release, Wayne then refuses his signature. He turns to complimenting her on being "a fine figure of a woman," coming close to her. The sense of underlying yearning for each other is very apparent but attitudes overrule emotions, if not always predictably. When their comfortable silence after dinner is broken by the arrival of the regimental singers to serenade Kathleen by singing "I'll take you home again, Kathleen," the choice seems an unfortunate one, reminding them of the past. Here one can see on Wayne's features a real actor at work; his brow stiffening, his discomfiture made obvious, his expression turning to sadness and regret as he looks down, telling Kathleen stiffly "This music...is not of my choosing," "I'm sorry Kirby, I wish it had been," she says gently.
She tries to bargain with Wayne. When he returns from an abortive mission trying to capture some Indians who have crossed over into Mexico and safety, he finds Kathleen waiting in his tent. They embrace warmly and talk over the past: she has rebuilt the house he burned down, perhaps they can rebuild their marriage. She suggests that Wayne should make a gesture in that direction by releasing Jeff. Wayne replies sensitively: "I could say yes very easily but I owe Jeff something." And at dinner with General Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish) and the other officers, it falls to her to propose a toast: "To my only rival, the United States cavalry."
Wayne's devotion to his job makes him agree to Sheridan's suggestion that he should breach the international treaty and take his men over the border to solve the Indian problem once and for all. He puts his personal loyalty to Sheridan, his old commander from Civil War days, over and above the illegality of the mission, prepared to risk court martial afterwards. In relieving his frustration over the unchecked raids by the the enemy, this is a characteristic example of Wayne as a figure of independence, answerable to himself rather than a book of rules. He does, however, relent a little where Kathleen is concerned. When it comes time to send her and the other women and children away to a safer area while he takes his men out on the campaign, he assigns Jeff to be one of the escort. "He'll hate you for it, Kirby," she says, adding warmly, "But I'll love you for it." "Aren't you going to kiss me goodbye?" she adds, giving Wayne his cue for one of those lines he can handle better than anyone: "I never want to kiss you goodbye, Kathleen."
However, the party of women and children are attacked en route and a wagonload of children are abducted. Jeff breaks through the ranks of attacking Indians and rides off to bring help. Wayne and his men come to the rescue and plan an attack on the Indians' refuge in Mexico with Wayne accepting the suggestion of Trooper Tyree (Ben Johnson) that he and two other men should creep into the village beforehand and join the children to protect them during the raid. Tyree picks Jeff and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) and Wayne agrees. The children are held in an old church at the back of the village and -- when the three soldiers are safely in position -- Wayne leads his men in a fierce charge through the encampment up to the church, receiving an arrow in the chest as the Indians are roundly defeated. He has Jeff pull it out and is brought home on a travois.
Kathleen has by now joined the other women waiting anxiously, praying for their men's safe return, thus completing her adaptation to army life from having taken her place in the laundry line after simply fainting like an outsider during an Indian raid shortly after her arrival. As the weary soldiers come in, she falls in alongside Jeff, then takes Wayne's hand, expressing to them her submission to their way of life, taking pleasure in Wayne's report that "Our boy did well." A final scene points up their reconciliation in happier circumstances. Wayne having fully recovered, as the soldiers parade past General Sheridan and the other officers, with Kathleen twirling her parasol in time to the music and smiling at her husband.
Rio Grande was made by Republic Pictures head Herbert J. Yates. He had agreed to produce John Ford's The Quiet Man , reluctantly I might add, but he added a condition. He required John Ford, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara to do Rio Grande to help recoup the money he expected to lose on The Quiet Man . Yates must have been pleasantly surprised when it was a hit. Today The Quiet Man is a classic for the ages and my favorite John Wayne film.
|Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke||John Wayne|
|Mrs. Kathleen Yorke||Maureen O'Hara|
|Sgt. Major Quincannon||Victor McLaglen|
|Trooper Jeff Yorke||Claude Jarman Jr.|
|Trooper Daniel (Sandy) Boone||Harry Carey Jr.|
|Trooper Tyree||Ben Johnson|
|Gen. Phillip Sheridan||J. Carrol Naish|
|Dr. Wilkins||Chill Wills|
|Deputy Marshal||Grant Withers|
|Margaret Mary||Karolyn Grimes|
|Trooper Heinz||Fred Kennedy|
|Capt. St. Jacques||Peter Ortiz|
Shooting (as Rio Bravo) from Mid-June to late July 1950.
Released November 15, 1950 (US), January 2, 1951 (Great Britain).
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