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Rio Grande Isn't Grand

What it's about

Rio Grande

The concluding chapter to director John Ford's "Cavalry trilogy" that also included "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" stars John Wayne as the hardened commander of a remote Army outpost along the Mexican border faced with two crises: marauding bands of Apaches from across the river and the arrival of estranged wife Maureen O'Hara and his son, new recruit Claude Jarman, Jr.


"A minor but enjoyable John Ford and John Wayne collaboration."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rio Grande was the last of the 7th Cavalry trilogy after the 1948 "Fort Apache" and the 1949 "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." A minor but enjoyable John Ford and John Wayne collaboration, that grieves for the past, offers fine characters in supporting roles (especially Victor McLaglen as the oafish master sergeant) and many of the usual quirky Ford cinematic moments. Writer James Kevin McGuinness based it on the Saturday Evening Post story Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah. It's richly absorbed in the whimsical aftermath of the Civil War and captures a feel for the rugged life on a frontier fort. It's also overloaded with corn, especially from the songs of the regimental singers called the Sons of the Pioneers. The songs were written by Stan Jones and Dale Evans. The eight tunes include: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," "My Gal Is Purple," "Yellow Stripes," "Footsore Cavalry."

Kirby Yorke (John Wayne), sporting a fancy mustache, is a colonel at a remote army outpost along the U.S.-Mexico border where the Apaches go on raids. Requesting an additional 180 men to put them down, Kirby instead gets 18 and one of them is his own son Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.) — recently booted out of West Point for flunking his subjects. Jeff immediately enlisted to prove his manhood.

Kirby has been divorced for a number of years and is surprised when his ex-wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) shows up. When she requests to buy her son out of the army, Kirby refuses to do the paperwork and Jeff refuses to leave the army. Kirby tells his estranged son to expect no preferential treatment, but begins to renew his relationship in a tender way with the woman he still loves.

During an Apache raid on a Cavalry led caravan the white children are taken and Jeff teams up with Reb horseman Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel 'Sandy' Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) to be part of the rescue effort. The Cavalry goes into Mexico (it's not exactly legal to cross the border) and through the heroics of the three friends they rescue the children. In the process, Kirby patches up his marriage and the Northerners and Southerners prove they can work together against a common enemy.

How it got made

John Ford's Triumphant Conclusion to Cavalry Trilogy!, April 21, 2003
By Benjamin J. Burgraff "Artist and Film Fan" (Las Vegas, NV)

'Rio Grande', the last of director John Ford's 'unofficial' Cavalry Trilogy, has often been unfairly judged the 'weakest' of the three westerns. Certainly, it lacks the poetic quality of 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon', or the revisionist view of a thinly-disguised reworking of the events surrounding the death of George Armstrong Custer ('Fort Apache'), but for richness of detail, a sense of the camaraderie of cavalrymen, an 'adult' (in the best sense of the word) love story, and a symbolic 'rejoining' of North and South conclusion that may have you tapping your toe, 'Rio Grande' is hard to beat!

It is remarkable that 'Rio Grande' ever got to the screen; Ford hadn't planned to make it, but in order to get Republic Pictures to agree to his demands for 'The Quiet Man' (he wanted the film to be shot on location in Ireland, and in color), he had to agree to do a 'quickie' western that would turn a quick profit for the usually cash-strapped studio. This is, perhaps, a reason why the film is held in less esteem than it deserves.

What about the Indians?
Most reviews of Rio Grande concentrate on the Wayne/O'Hara relationship. They barely mention the Apaches, although they're the enemy and take up half the film. Here's one exception:

Rio Grande  B

In John Ford's epic Western Rio Grande, John Wayne's Lt. Colonel Kirby Yorke is fully committed to fighting the Indians. At the film's start, he returns from an abortive mission aimed at capturing Indians who have crossed over into Mexico.

Fighting the enemy has almost become a lost cause because the U.S. and Mexican governments have agreed not to cross the Rio Grande under the circumstances. The Apache, however, take advantage of the situation: They raid the whites, then escape safely across the border.

This impasse irritates Wayne because the matter is beyond his control—the border sanctuary set-up and the shortage of troops impede his mission to make the place safe for the American settlers.

Following a further attack, General Sheridan gives Wayne informal permission to cross the border and smoke the Indians out of their hideouts, once and for all. A breach of international law, Wayne puts his loyalty to Sheridan, his commander from the Civil war, over and above the illegality of the mission. He accepts the plan wholeheartedly, unable to conceal his frustration over the unchecked Indian attacks. Wayne is even willing to risk court martial, though Sheridan promises to handpick the court's members if it comes to that.

This streak of independence is integral to the Wayne charismatic heroes, all men living by their personal code of ethics rather than by a set of legal rules. It is interesting to mention that the script initially called for a scene in which Wayne is punished for his illegal action and is sent to London as a military adviser. However, director Ford thought that it was both anti-climactic and incongruent with the star's image, and the scene was deleted.

Chanting and raiding
Unlike Fort Apache, where Wayne sticks up for the Indians, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, where Wayne tolerates them, here Wayne has nothing good to say about them. He doesn't bad-mouth them per se, but the movie treats them as mindless savages—a whooping, spear-waving band of marauders.

A quote helps establish the movie's attitude toward Indians. First, Wayne obliquely refers to what the Apaches do: torture people and spread-eagle them on wheels:

[Lt. Col. Yorke lectures new recruits]
Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke: I don't want you men to be fooled about what's coming up for you. Torture, at least that. The War Department promised me 180 men. They sent me eighteen. You are the eighteen... so each of you will have to do the work of ten men. If you fail, I'll have you spread-eagled on a wagon wheel. If you desert, you'll be found, tracked down and broken into bits. That is all.

Let's consider the elements beside the father/mother/son triangle. True, these relationships raise the movie above the typical Western and make it worth watching. But they don't tell us anything about Rio Grande's message about Indians.

The first Apache we see up close is chanting in a high-pitched tone. The phrase "wailing like a banshee" comes to mind. Eventually we see he's being held prisoner in a crude stockade. He and the other prisoners are apparently calling for help, or signaling that help is about to arrive. But as the Indians stand motionless and chant, they seem inhuman, almost demonic.

Apaches attack the fort on horseback. They free the prisoners and light a few structures on fire. They're meant to seem like vicious marauders, I presume. But one could just as easily spin them as noble heroes, risking their lives to save their imprisoned countrymen.

The soldiers react kind of stupidly. They decide to send the women and children away because the fort isn't safe. Not surprisingly, the Apaches attack the troops when they're strung out in a long wagon train. In this formation, they can't defend the women and children and have to flee.

The Apaches use a mix of rifles, spears, and bows and arrows. I'm betting rifles were a lot more common than spears at this point in the Indian Wars. But protruding spears and arrows look a lot more dramatic than invisible bullet wounds.

The soldiers drive the Apaches off, but not before the Indians capture some of the children. Do the Apaches retreat to a mountain stronghold where they'd be almost unassailable? No, they stop in the middle of a defenseless Mexican village.

Drinking and dancing
Another quote sets the stage:

[Yorke plans the rescue of children held prisoner by Apaches]
Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke: Any liquor in this village?
Trooper Travis Tyree: Mucho tequila. They were slugging it down copious like when I left.
Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke: Drums? Singing?
Trooper Travis Tyree: Yes, sir.
Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke: Vengeance dance. They'll dance until dawn.

The Apaches put the children in a church and don't post guards. If the children were brave enough, they could simply run away. If this isn't stupid enough, the Indians proceed to get drunk and dance. Apparently they're confident no American would ever cross the border illegally.

Because the children are in an unguarded church several hundred yards from the Apaches, three of Yorke's men are able to sneak in. But here the soldiers prove to be as stupid as the Indians. Rather than sneak the children out immediately, they hole up in the church and wait until dawn. The Apaches finally check on their prisoners and a firefight ensues. Yorke rides to the rescue and everyone lives happily ever after.

John Ford offered a fairly sophisticated view of the Apaches, at least for a mid-century Western, in Fort Apache. He identified Cochise and other Apaches by name and gave them some noteworthy face time. But here the Indians are faceless enemies with no human qualities (except perhaps incompetence).

They chant eerily. They attack and kill. They use spears when rifles would be more effective. Their stupid moves (stopping in the village, getting drunk, leaving the children unguarded) outweigh their smart moves (raiding the fort and attacking the wagon train unexpectedly). In short, they're savages, and no match for our stalwart heroes.

I haven't seen the dozens of B-Westerns John Wayne made before he became a star. I have seen some of his major Westerns, and his attitude toward Indians seems to vary. It often seems benign.

Much of Wayne's anti-Indian reputation is built on The Searchers. But we can add Rio Grande to his list of anti-Indian films. In this movie, Ford and Wayne tell us nothing about Indians as human beings.

Rob's rating:  7.0 of 10.

Related links
Noble Americans in Fort Apache
Review of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Straight shootin' with the Duke
The best Indian movies

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