RIO GRANDE—-from 1950, the last chapter of director John Ford’s unofficial ‘cavalry trilogy’, kicked off in ’48 by the flourish of Fort Apache, then graced with Technicolor glory in 1949s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. This one has less impact, lacking the fresh vigor of the first and the poetic beauty of the second.
Though its story is loaded with incident, the 105 minutes tend to creak along over trails more than a bit trampled. John Wayne has his gloves full this mission: his undermanned garrison is plagued by Apaches but prevented from following them over the Mexican border, his son (Claude Jarman Jr.) that he barely knows is assigned to the post, and his wife (Maureen O’Hara) shows up to wrest the boy out of the Army. During the Civil War, Wayne was forced to burn her plantation, and they’ve been bitterly estranged since, a house divided.
Jarman just simply can’t pass as the result of a pairing between Wayne and O’Hara: putting him next to the Duke and saying they’re related doesn’t fly. Victor McLaglen once again does his gruff Irish sergeant with a mushy heart: it’s run its course.
Ford wasn’t keen on doing the film (it was a studio condition for making The Quiet Man, which was expected to lose money), and he blistered it through in 32 days: the 646 camera setups required only 665 takes. The budget came in a lean $1,287,000. The script works well with the Wayne-O’Hara dynamic, but it’s politically suspect as a Cold War allegory (chasing Apaches across the border interpreted by many a veiled mask for pursuing the Chinese across the Yalu).*
While it’s an unexciting effort from Ford, it’s certainly not a bad movie and there are several pluses for fans of outdoor sagas. In the first of five match-ups, Wayne and O’Hara work honestly and effectively together, a natural screen team. Watching former rodeo champ Ben Johnson ride across the desert like a whirlwind is a pleasure. The rich singing voice of Ken Curtis, in harmony with The Sons Of The Pioneers, gets airing, in the first of 11 supporting roles for the director (Curtis, 34, married Ford’s daughter two years later).**
With Harry Carey Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Grant Withers, Jack Pennick, Peter Ortiz, Shug Fisher, Patrick Wayne (debut, age 11) and Chuck Roberson. It grossed $4,950,000, 34th among the earners from 1950.
* Interesting argument, the whole ‘Cold War western’ analysis. Ford’s politics were a mix of liberal and conservative,Wayne’s notably hawkish. The script was written by right-winger James Kevin McGuinness, from a story by right winger James Warner Bellah. But the Korean War was only ten days old when this movie was in production, and the MacArthur-Truman controversy was ten months in the future. So, per the logic of Apaches=Commies/red men=Reds speculation the script manages to be simple alarmist jingoism and at the same time prescient about events and public opinion. Read what you want into lines like ” I want you to cross the Rio Grande, hit the Apache and burn him out. I’m tired of hit-and-run. I’m sick of diplomatic hide-and-seek.”
** Curtis’ last picture with Ford was Cheyenne Autumn, in 1964. That melancholy swan song to Ford’s westerns was Ben Johnson’s first job with the Old Man since 1950 and Rio Grande. Genuine cowboy Johnson didn’t take Ford’s customary abuse (usually dished out to Wayne) and committed the cardinal sin of telling him what he could do with it. Fourteen years of banishment was the payback. It was Ford’s prideful loss then, as in the interim, Johnson notched superb work for George Stevens in Shane and Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. Hanging in there, bolstered by sincerity, Ben walked off with an Oscar in 1971 for The Last Picture Show. Since Curtis divorced Barbara Ford after Cheyenne Autumn, his hall pass went south as well. Ken lucked out with 299 episodes of Gunsmoke.