The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - RIO GRANDE (1950) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - RIO GRANDE (1950)

rio grande review
A US Cavalry Lieutenant Colonel is shocked to learn his estranged son has been assigned to his regiment.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: John Ford

Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman Jr., Harry Carey Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen

rio grande bluray

By 1950, John Ford had established himself as one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood, with a filmography that boasted such classics as Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine, 3 Godfathers and a pair of thematically connected movies focussed on the exploits of the US Cavalry in Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. But in the Hollywood studio system, even a director as revered as Ford couldn't always get his way. On completion of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford had his heart set on making a movie in his ancestral home of Ireland, an adaptation of Maurice Walsh's Saturday Evening Post story 'The Quiet Man'. Ford got to make that movie in 1952, but only after agreeing to direct a third Cavalry picture, 1950's Rio Grande.

The films in Ford's Cavalry trilogy are linked primarily by their broad setting, that of the US Cavalry in the late 19th century, but also by a confusing intermingling of recurring actors and characters. All three are headlined by John Wayne, initially as Captain Kirby York in Fort Apache, then Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and finally Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke in Rio Grande. Are York and Yorke the same man? Possibly, but what muddies this read of the character is the presence of Victor McLaglen in all three movies. If Wayne is playing the same character in Fort Apache and Rio Grande, why is McLaglen playing two completely different men, Sergeant Mulcahy in Fort Apache and Sergeant Major Quincannon in Rio Grande, the latter a character he established in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon? As with Quincannon, Ben Johnson's Travis Tyree appears in both She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. However, in the former he's a sergeant, while in the latter he's merely a trooper. This suggests that Rio Grande is a prequel to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but this idea is further complicated by the presence of Harry Carey Jr., appearing in both films as different characters.

rio grande review

Ford clearly didn't envision the era of the internet, when cinematic trainspotters like yours truly would give ourselves headaches over such issues, and I'm in no doubt that he would order me to "get a life" if I ever had the chance to broach the topic with his ghost. For Ford, Rio Grande was an obligation rather than a passion project, which may explain such inconsistencies. But even the movies Ford would rather not have made boast enough brilliance to rival most filmmaker's passion projects, and while it's easily the weakest and most inconsequential of his Cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande offers enough small moments of human insight to satisfy fans of this most humane and insightful of filmmakers.

[ READ MORE: Blu-Ray Review - Beyond the Door ]

As with The Quiet Man, so too does Rio Grande take its inspiration from a short story originally published in the Saturday Evening Post - James Warner Bellah's 1947 tale 'Mission With No Record'. Bellah's story provides Rio Grande with its primary plot, in which Yorke is shocked to learn that his son, Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he hasn't seen in 15 years, has flunked out of Westpoint Military Academy and has subsequently been assigned to his regiment, which is currently tasked with protecting settlers from Native American raiding parties. Father and son have an initially testy reunion, both making it clear that no favours will be granted or expected of either party.

Another figure from Yorke's past arrives in the form of his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara), who hopes to free her son from the Cavalry, something neither Yorke nor Jefferson are in agreement with. 15 years prior, Yorke chose his duty to the Union when he and his men burnt down his wife's family home, a Southern plantation, something which has eaten away at his soul ever since. Despite their outward testiness, Yorke and Kathleen are clearly happy to be reunited, if even in such adversarial circumstances.

rio grande review

This may be the core plot of Rio Grande, but it takes up a remarkably small portion of its running time. Ford's film plays loose with its structure, and it's the very definition of a "hang out" film, one which is more concerned with letting us simply hang out with its characters than in spinning some overarching narrative. This is evident in how much screen time is given to Western vocal group The Sons of the Pioneers (featuring Ford's son-in-law and future Gunsmoke star Ken Curtis among their number), who perform as much as 10 ditties in some form or another. When the characters are as warm and likeable as those assembled here, that's fine by me.

[ READ MORE: Blu-Ray Review - The Wind ]

McLaglen was an indelible part of Ford's stock company, often used to embody the Irish experience in America, despite the actor being of English origin. Beginning in the silent era, Ford had cast him as a leading man, a rough and ready counterpoint to the pretty boy looks of the era's male stars, but as he got older he faded into the background of Ford's films. Rio Grande provides McLaglen with one of the more substantial roles of his later career, and his Quincannon seems to spend more time on screen than Wayne's Yorke. A big loveable lug, Quincannon is a man torn between his position as a Sergeant Major and his clear love for and envy of the young men under his charge. We get to see McLaglen's sensitive side when Kathleen's arrival fills him with guilt - 'twas he who lit the torch that felled her family home - and in his charming interactions with the young children of the settlers, who label him "Uncle Timmy".

Another subplot concerns Johnson's Tyree, who is tracked down by a Marshall who wants to take him in on a charge of manslaughter. Before he's nabbed we get a chance to witness Johnson's legendary skills as a horseman in a thunderous sequence in which himself, Carey Jr. and Jarman Jr. indulge in a Roman style race. Incredibly, this involves simultaneously riding two horses while standing up, the sort of physical spectacle modern cinema simply can't rival.

rio grande review

It all wraps up with an obligatory action set-piece involving the Cavalry rescuing kidnapped kids from one-dimensional 'Injuns', but as with all of Ford's movies, no matter how well staged the action sequences are, it's the small moments of humanity that stick with us. Those ignorant members of the "John Wayne couldn't act" fraternity would do well to watch how much he communicates without dialogue here. Much of Wayne's performance as Yorke involves him standing in the background, casting a watchful and weary eye over his son, his wife, and his men, feeling the weight of responsibility for all three. A furrowing of Wayne's brow communicates more about the knots in Yorke's stomach than any grandstanding monologue ever could.

The movie's most touching moment comes in the aftermath of Yorke's reintroduction to Jefferson. When the boy leaves his tent, Yorke examines the mark left on the canvas wall by his son's hat and compares it to his own height, a physical illustration of the years lost between father and son. In this moment, Yorke feels both pride and sadness, the very mix of feelings Ford communicated towards the costly development of America throughout his work.

A new and exclusive feature-length audio commentary by western authority Stephen Prince; specific audio commentary with Maureen O’Hara; video essay on the film by John Ford expert and scholar Tag Gallagher; Along the Rio Grande with Maureen O’Hara – archival documentary; The Making of Rio Grande – archival featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin; theatrical trailer; collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by western expert Howard Hughes, a new essay by film writer Phil Hoad, transcript of an interview with John Ford, excerpts from a conversation with Harry Carey, Jr., and a reprint of James Warner Bellah's Saturday Evening Post story 'Mission With No Record'.

Rio Grande is on blu-ray April 20th from Eureka Entertainment.