John Ford’s Rio Grande: good (or bad?) things always come in threes…

Released in 1950, Rio Grande is the third movie of legendary director John Ford’s so-called “cavalry trilogy”. Based on a story published in the Saturday Evening Post “Mission With No Record” (1947) by James Warner Bellah, the movie is the first to cast the famous on-screen couple John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

rio-grandeAfter the American Civil War, Colonel Kirby Yorke is responsible for watching the territories on the northern side of the Rio Grande. When his long-lost son arrives at the fort as a simple soldier followed by Yorke’s estranged wife, it’s double trouble for him. The Colonel has to take position between military and personal values, patriotic commitment and family responsibility.

Rio Grande wasn’t supposed to see the light of day. By 1950 John Ford wanted to fulfill a professional dream, a risky project named The Quiet Man, a romantic comedy about the country of his heart, Ireland. But the only way the president of Republic Pictures, Herbert J. Yates, would support Ford’s project was if he produced an infallible box-office hit [1]. The irony is that The Quiet Man became a financial and critical hit, whereas Rio Grande made profit but wasn’t as well received as the two previous films of the “cavalry trilogy” (Fort Apache in 1948 and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949).This movie is still a classic Western, but this obligation – as if Ford had to do his homework before being allowed to play – is conspicuous in the movie. Ford didn’t take the task very seriously, Harry Carey Jr. (who plays trooper Daniel Boon) even called it one of the director’s “vacation pictures” [2].

Stunt rio grandeThe story runs slow and the action comes far too late. Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) is conducting a vain campaign against the marauding Apaches and is assigned to train eighteen recruits, one of them being his son, trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr), whom he hasn’t seen for years. Yorke’s determination to remain insensible to personal feelings is further tested when his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) arrives at the post to look after her son and possibly to buy back the boy’s enlistment. Kathleen has been out of Yorke’s life ever since the Civil War, when under orders, Yorke and his second in command Sergeant Major Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) burned down Kathleen’s family’s plantation.

The plot has just been settled but the story doesn’t go anywhere for about forty-five minutes. The deadlock is only interrupted by an incredible horse riding display by trooper Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and trooper Daniel Boone (Harry Carrey Jr.) – as if Ford knew that scene would put more energy into the scenario – in which they speed with one foot on the back of each of the two horses. It’s a mind-blowing scene that also reveals they aren’t afraid of anything; moreover, by doing the exact same thing, trooper Jeff Yorke (even if he falls off the horses) shows the pointlessness of his mother’s attempts to bring him back home.

monument-valley-rio-grandeAs it is often the case in John Ford’s films, attacks and fights aren’t put at the forefront. Ford concentrates on the domestic issues of the Yorke family,and what he certainly proves is that the men find comfort in the substitute family that the cavalry represents for them. The Sons of the Pioneers are also in the movie, their songs are beautiful, but they slow the movie even further.

The cast is outstanding and their performances are remarkable. The black and white images are also superb, and Ford offers an exceptional and breathtaking setting of Monument Valley, even if the famous buttes are not located on the Rio Grande. But as John Wayne said, Monument Valley is the place « where God put the West. » [3]

Rio Grande is a predictable movie, and it isn’t John Ford’s greatest movie, as he didn’t want it to be. But it is still worth the watch for the story it hides, the performances and the sumptuous images.

Rio Grande (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness (based on the story “Mission With No Record” by James Warner Bellah
Produced by Argosy Pictures
Released by Republic Pictures
Running time: 105 minutes

The Cast :
John Wayne . . . . . Col. Kirby Yorke
Maureen O’Hara . . . . . Mrs. Kathleen Yorke
Ben Johnson . . . . . Trooper Tyree
Claude Jarman Jr. . . . . . Trooper Jeff Yorke
Harry Carey Jr. . . . . . Trooper Daniel Boone
Victor McLaglen . . . . . Sgt. Quincannon

[1] Randy Roberts, John Wayne: American, p. 357 (Google Books) / (
[2] Harry Carey, Jr., Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, p. 117 (Google books)
[3] Carolyn O’Bagy Davis and Harvey Leake, Kayenta and Monument Valley, Arcadia Publishing, 2010, p. 100.

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