Rio Grande Review
A straight-talking yet sentimental stalwart of Hollywood and an anchor for the Western, its purest early genre, there are few craftsmen with a career so exciting and reliable in cinema as that of John Ford. You always knew what you were going to get from one of his Westerns; and then again, you didn’t.
Rio Grande (1950) was Ford’s seventh collaboration with his great friend John Wayne. Taken for granted as a movie star, Ford frequently proved Wayne was a superb actor too. Here he was paired with the wonderful Maureen O’Hara and it would prove to be such a unique chemistry they would work together several times, including in Ford’s elegiac classic The Quiet Man. Rio Grande was also the third part of Ford’s loose “Cavalry” trilogy, made somewhat to appease the producers that wouldn’t let him go straight to a gamble on The Quiet Man (1952); a gamble that would prove phenomenally successful. Nevertheless, Rio Grande is anything but a stepping stone and is still relevant today.
Wayne plays Lt. Kirby Yorke, posted on the Texan border in 1879 to defend settlers. His son, Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.) is a new recruit to his father’s regiment and they haven’t seen each other for 15 years. Both intend a strictly professional relationship until Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), Yorke’s estranged wife, arrives in camp, determined to find a loophole to bring her son home, much to his chagrin.
The screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness is a gem, making great use of the 105 minute running time. Razor sharp dialogue cuts cleanly through the melodrama. The main plot -a rekindled romance given urgency by an impossible mission to cross the Rio Grande river- is balanced with several offshoots, including Ben Johnson’s Trooper being doggedly pursued by a Marshall. It’s full of fantastic characters, not least the larger than life “chowder headed Mick” Sergeant Major, played by Victor McLaglen. Wayne is as dependable as ever in these less bombastic roles he played for Ford and a perfect match for O'Hara; for once, a female part woven into the narrative and treated with respect as part of a mature love affair.
John Ford was the master of real people in extraordinary drama but a consummate artist too. He confidently embraced sentiment as easily as heart-thumping action with some still extraordinary stunt work. Neither is favoured over the other and plays easily with a tone that would fit either The Searchers (1956) or Howard Hawks' more comedic Rio Bravo (1959).
Rio Grande has its fair share of horse opera stereotypes and clichés, but here, they are in an original form. It’s a rich, layered film to match Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). All three are less dated than you might assume and age better than many subsequent films that would ape Ford's style but lack his ambition and heart. In the case of this one, it worked as a metaphor for the frustration felt in the US at the time over the Korean conflict and so successfully reflects more recent wars.
A warm film with a deceptive, easy tempo, Rio Grande's still waters run deep. There's a camaraderie between the cast, crew and characters that shines through the screen. John Ford himself may gruffly protest, but like many of his films, here you will find a rarely matched subtlety of storytelling and film-craft.
Considering the film is from 1950 and typical of Ford, much of it filmed outdoors, the transfer is excellent. Fair balance of detail and grain. Contrast can be a little harsh but it's consistent throughout.
Cavalry: Video essay by Tag Gallagher (11m): A nice chunk of historical information - though Tag is rather serious - as well as concise critiques of Ford. His use of dust, for example, to always maintain movement.
Making of Rio Grande (21m): Archival retrospective piece with Leonard Maltin. If you know Maltin, you'll appreciate his ability to put the film's place in cinema history into context.
Along the Rio Grande (19m): Lovely piece featuring an interview with Maureen. She's proper Hollywood and her class shines. Anecdotes from the set as only she would know.
Commentary with Western authority Stephen Prince: insightful with a deep dive into the narrative. An easy listen, though Stephen can occasionally sound like he's reading an essay.
Commentary with Maureen O'Hara: it's always good to hear from someone who was actually on-set, but when that person is Maureen O'Hara, it's special. It's an easy and fascinating listen in her company.
Also included is a limited edition o-sleeve and booklet. Eureka always put a lot of effort into the sleeve notes and booklets, but they've outdone themselves here. It's a substantial read, including the original "Mission with No Record" article that inspired the story, interviews with John Ford (always entertaining due to his salty attitude) and essays on the making of the film.