Some time in the last 10 years, I developed a man crush on the film collaboration between actor John Wayne and film director John Ford. Wayne and Ford's greatest masterpiece would be the 1956 classic western THE SEARCHERS but altogether, the two of them made 13 films together. Recently, actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese combined on eight films together. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have worked together on seven films to date.
One of my favorite Wayne/Ford collaborations was their 'Cavalry Trilogy' - consisting of FORT APACHE (1948), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), and RIO GRANDE (1950). All were shot around Moab, Utah and Monument Valley. All are about life in the U.S. Cavalry, usually set in distant outposts, surrounded by warring Indians. FORT APACHE is probably the most epic of the three. Henry Fonda plays a General Custer-like officer who leads his troops on a doomed raid against the Indians. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (the only one in color) is a character study of an aging Captain (John Wayne) counting off his last days in the army while trying to head off an Indian war. RIO GRANDE is a culmination of many of the themes from the first two films - honor, duty, friendship, and most of all family.
Director Ford created a film family throughout his career, often using the same actors over and over again. In the Cavalry Trilogy, actors John Wayne and Victor McLaglen appear in all three Cavalry films. John Agar, George O'Brien, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr, and Grant Withers appear in two of the three films. Several other Ford stock actors make uncredited appearances in many of them as well. Actors McLaglen and Johnson even have the same character name in two of the films but different military ranks. In RIO GRANDE, the Yorke family is at the center of the story, screen play by James Kevin McGuinness, based on a Saturday Evening Post story by James Warner Bellah. Bellah also provided the stories for both FORT APACHE and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON.
RIO GRANDE opens with Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) and his troop returning from another patrol along the Rio Grande, bringing with them a captured Apache chief and some other rebellious Indians. As the Cavalry settles back in to regular Army life, some new recruits show up including Yorke's son Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr). Jefferson, newly kicked out of West Point Military Academy for poor grades, has barely met or ever known his father. Their reunion is a coincidence. The family dynamics get even more complicated when Jefferson's mother (and Col Yorke's estranged wife) Kathleen Yorke (Maureen O'Hara) arrives from the East Coast to bring her son Jefferson back home.
Within this framework, director Ford introduces the supporting characters and explores subplots, something he does so expertly throughout the Cavalry trilogy. Young Jefferson will bond with new recruits Trooper Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Trooper Daniel "Sandy" Boone (Harry Carey, Jr), a friendship that will come in handy at the film's climax. Tyree harbors a secret (he may have killed a man in self defense in Texas) that the U.S. Deputy Marshal (Grant Withers) wants to arrest him for. The recruits are under the watchful eye of the fatherly Sgt. Major Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen), who provides the requisite Irish humor that is found in many of Ford's films.
As the three Yorke family members begin to reacquaint themselves with each other, an Apache party swoops in one night and breaks out the captured Indians. Yorke and his men give chase but the renegade Indians make it back across the Rio Grande. Yorke meets up with a small contingent of the Mexican army on a sand bar in the middle of the river, hoping for permission to cross into Mexico and fight the various tribes that are congregating. The Mexican general politely declines his request.
Yorke reports back to his commanding officer, Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan (J. Carroll Naish) who makes a daring decision. Sheridan gives Yorke permission to cross into Mexico. He's tired of the Indians "hit and run" tactics. Sheridan's decision foreshadows the U.S. Army brass ninety years later giving unauthorized permission to cross into Laos or Cambodia to chase the Viet Cong.
York assigns his son Jeff to escort his mother Kathleen and the rest of the women and children to Fort Bliss, away from harm's way. But the Indians ambush the wagon train and kidnap all the children. Tyree, now a fugitive but hiding on the outskirts of the outpost, rejoins with Lt. Yorke and his men with vital information. He knows where the Indians are hanging out and volunteers for a rescue mission to rescue the children from an old Mexican church with the help of Jeff and Sandy. As the three troopers sneak into the dusty Mexican town and secure the church and children, Yorke and his cavalry ride in for a showdown with the warring Indian tribes.
The Rio Grande is a great metaphor, representing the division of many things throughout the film. The river physically divides the U.S. from Mexico and the U.S. Cavalry from the various Indian marauders. But the river also represents the psychological split in Yorke's family. Yorke's separation from his wife Kathleen and his son Jeff. Family life versus the U.S. Cavalry life. Neither mother or son know Kirby very well. "He's a lonely man," Kathleen tells her son. RIO GRANDE also explores the divide of a nation from war and the healing process of the young United States of America. The Civil War is almost a dozen years past and the Cavalry is full of both Yankees and Rebels, living and fighting together under one flag. Once enemies, the men and women are all united again but the wounds are deep. From what I could gather, Kirby, Quincannon, and Sheridan fought for the North in the Civil War and under orders, burned down a southern plantation crop that happened to belong to Kathleen's family. That's how Kirby and Kathleen met. Not exactly the smoothest romance.
Whether in THE QUIET MAN (1952) or RIO GRANDE, actors Wayne and O'Hara are a strong pair of lovers. No one play independent one moment and vulnerable the next better than O'Hara. Ford said he didn't know Wayne could really act until he saw him in Howard Hawks' RED RIVER (1948) but I think Wayne is fantastic in RIO GRANDE and the other Cavalry films. The shots of Wayne watching his son with pride from afar or his concern for his son's safety at times are touching. At the film's climax, Kirby takes an arrow in the chest. It's son Jefferson who pulls the arrow out, releasing all the years of hostility and resentment built up for his father, bonding them forever. Director Ford makes great use of the Regimental Musicians (Sons of the Pioneers), a quartet that sings throughout the film and seem to express the feelings that Kirby and Kathleen have as they try to reconcile their complicated relationship.
Most of the showdowns that director Ford stages in his films like FORT APACHE or THE SEARCHERS are usually out in the wide open. But in RIO GRANDE, the climax is in a dusty Mexican border town with its lone white church. It's a nice change and separates GRANDE from the other Cavalry films. Spaghetti western director Sergio Leone must have liked it to as he definitely borrows the sparse town and white church motif in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965). Even though the Indians are the bad guys, Ford respects them and never treats them as caricatures or stock characters. At the end of the film, General Sheridan awards medals to the brave Troopers Jeff, Sandy, and Tyree but another medal for bravery is awarded to an Indian scout.
Ford wants authenticity in his Cavalry films, what life was like on the outpost. He shows the wives washing the soldiers clothes in the river. If two recruits have a dispute, they settle it by the rules of Soldier's fight (with Quincannon as referee). One of the most amazing sequences is when Quincannon shows the new recruits how the U.S. Cavalry ride horses like the ancient Romans i.e. the Cavalry man stands on two horses (a foot on each horse's back) and rides around a ring, upright, and even jumping over six foot bars. It's an unbelievable sight.
Besides Wayne and O'Hara, all the actors in RIO GRANDE are excellent with every one of them having an opportunity to shine. A couple I might single out that might not normally be praised include Harry Carey, Jr as Trooper Sandy Boone. Carey played a rival for Joanna Dru's affections in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON but didn't have many lines but his deadpan quips in GRANDE are funny. The other unsung standout is Chill Willis as Dr. Wilkins, an unorthodox regimental surgeon who provides Quincannon with his liquor and has no trouble letting Trooper Tyree escape from his doctor's quarters to the chagrin of the U.S. Marshal.
Each of the Cavalry films is unique enough to stand on its own but if you can try to watch all three of them. RIO GRANDE is a nice culmination of themes and images that Ford began with FORT APACHE and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. Ford and Wayne may have saved the best for last.