The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Rio Grande as 38th Parallel


We think
now of
John Ford’s ‘cavalry trilogy’ as a unified body of work, but it wasn’t conceived
as such. By the end of 1949 Ford’s company Argosy Productions was in trouble. Fort Apache (RKO, 1948) had grossed $4.3 million against an outlay of $2.14m,
and its rather different follow-up, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (RKO, 1949), had done pretty well too, but The Fugitive, Ford’s non-Western 1947
Mexican priest drama with Henry Fonda, was a dead loss and swallowed up all
other profits and more. Argosy had to sell its films to RKO and it then (at the
urging of John Wayne) signed a three-picture deal with Republic. Ford was set on
making The Quiet Man but Rio Grande was just an obvious way to
make some money and prepare for that project, another popular cavalry Western
to recover some losses.

Ford’s son Patrick said, “He didn’t want to make Rio Grande, he didn’t want any part of it. So then there was the compromise, going back and forth: ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, if I can have my choice of cast in Rio Grande, I’ll make it for you.” Pat Ford said that John Wayne didn’t really want to do it either. “Duke didn’t really want to make it. It was just a job.”
The final part of the cavalry trilogy
As Rio Grande got under way it became
more and more a sequel – not to Yellow
but to Fort Apache. Ford
liked the idea of continuing with Apache’s
Kirby York (though he is Yorke with an –e in Rio Grande; no one has ever satisfactorily explained why) and
developing the themes. He used another James Warner Bellah story, as for Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon, but changed less this time. He did not use Frank Nugent for the screenplay but hard-drinking Irishman James Kevin McGuinness, from MGM. Bellah had a penchant for silly names for his characters and the hero was a certain Mazzarin. Ford changed that to Yorke to get continuity.

It turned out to be a popular move with the public too.

And it
turned out to be more than that: it became a fine, fine film. In some ways that
was surprising because being a Republic picture it was inevitably very low
budget. Studio boss Herb Yates saw to that. The ceiling was $1.25m. Ford
decided to shoot in Moab, UT rather than his iconic Monument Valley to keep
costs down, and shot the picture in only five weeks, using mostly first takes.
He made other economies. Yellow Ribbon
had been in color but for Rio Grande it
was back to black & white. Not that that was an artistic handicap: Fort Apache had shown just how beautiful
a black & white Western could be, and Archie Stout, DP on Apache, was engaged to shoot Rio Grande in Moab (where Ford had just been working on Wagonmaster), with Bert Glennon, DP on Wagonmaster,
doing the interiors. A colorized version of Rio Grande, which does exist but which I have
not seen, would ruin the luminous black & white photography which Ford

Wayne too gave up his 10% cut of the profits. The whole thing was done
on a tight budget. A positive side-effect of the restricted budget,
though, was that in return, Yates gave Ford final cut – though Yates did insist
that the Sons of the Pioneers be included, which appalled Ford. The director
managed to work their song in as a sort of cavalry Greek chorus.
Wayne and Ford discuss
In fact
that is one of the weaknesses of Rio
as it indeed it was of Wagonmaster – there are too many songs. The movie is almost a damn musical. This
regiment includes a surprising number of professional tenors and baritones. The
principals don’t burst into song (thank goodness) but the rather mawkish
serenading by ‘soldiers’ plays a key part in the film, most notably, of course,
‘I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen’, which becomes the theme of the whole movie.
Too many songs
As to
the cast, alongside Wayne was Maureen O’Hara as his estranged wife. Am I alone
in finding Ms. O’Hara rather tiresome? Time and again she portrays a shrewish,
stubborn and selfish redhead with whom we are supposed to sympathize but whom
we find just irritating. She accuses her husband of arrogance and obstinacy
without the slightest idea that these are exactly her own faults. It’s true
that her performance here is not as crude as in
McLintock! or elsewhere (she was
embarrassingly bad in
The Rare Breed), but still I kind of turn off when
she appears. O’Hara’s greatest fan was O’Hara and she thought all movie
projects were about her. She complained (all the time) about how poorly she was
treated, though Ford actually adored her (for some reason) and treated her like
a queen. She should have known what poor treatment at the hands of Ford really
was – he could be a bully who victimized a cast member he didn’t like.
O’Hara as resentful and protective wife/mother
story concerns Col. & Mrs. York(e)’s son, Jeff, who has failed at West
Point and enlisted as a trooper in the cavalry. The boy’s mother wants the
colonel to release him, regardless of the lad’s own wishes, but Col. Yorke
rather respects his son’s decision and as a democrat, Westerner and slightly rebellious type (at least in Fort Apache) he has no snobbish qualms,
as Jeff’s mother has, about the ‘loss of class’ involved.

The son
is played by Claude Jarman Jr., and here we come to one of the strong points of
the movie.  Jarman, not yet 16, was
superb. It was inspired casting. He captures perfectly that ‘adolescence with
grit’ that the role requires. Ford shows him sometimes (in the hospital or with
the children in the church) as a little boy, but other times as a full-grown
man, for example pulling the arrow out of his father’s shoulder. One of the key
aspects of the film is the coming-of-age of the colonel’s son. It was a magnificent
performance by Jarman, who had won an Oscar for his role in The Yearling in 1946. He even mastered
the extremely difficult art of Roman riding (riding two horses standing up, one
foot on each mount) for a stunning scene with Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. Perversely, Ford filmed this in long shot so that many of the audience would assume stuntmen were being used, but it was Jarman, Johnson and Carey alright.
Remarkable scene
It endeared
Jarman to Ford and the young actor was spared humiliation at the director’s
hands. Still, Wayne was, as ever, supportive and kind to the lad, as he always
was to young actors on Ford’s sets.
The boy becomes a man
colonel’s wife (O’Hara) is still resentful about her husband’s burning of Bridesdale,
her Southern plantation, during the campaign under Sheridan in the war.
Petulant and willful, she is more Scarlett than Maureen O’Hara, and Bridesdale
is her Tara. But she gradually comes round as the film progresses. A key scene
is when she rolls up her sleeves with the other women of the fort and does her
husband’s washing while singing The Irish
– Ford (not the world’s greatest feminist) suggests that she
has lost her snobbish aristocratic ways and become a proper soldier’s wife, respectful
of family values, rather like Mrs. O’Rourke in Fort Apache. She becomes more ‘ethnic’ (Irish) and thus, in Ford’s
language, more democratic.
McLaglen as comic relief (again)
cavalry is full of Ford stock company regulars. Victor McLaglen is (of course)
an Irish sergeant fond of a drop, Ben Johnson as Travis Tyree and Carey as
Sandy Boone are ex-Confederate troopers (Travis was a sergeant in Yellow Ribbon but appears to have been
busted to trooper), Chill Wills is the regimental surgeon, and we spot Ken
Curtis and Chuck Roberson in the ranks too.

Actually, Ben Johnson clashed with
Ford. Ford started in on Johnson at dinner one night, calling him stupid and
belittling him with snide remarks, as was his wont. Wayne would take Ford’s
browbeating but Johnson would not. He quietly told Ford where he could put his
picture (which would have been anatomically difficult) and left. He didn’t work
for Ford again for fifteen years. But it was good to have someone to stand up
to the old tyrant.
The colonel’s son pals up with ex-Reb troopers Sandy and Travis
The cast
and crew had to stay in the same hotel, eat together, and submit to communal ‘entertainments’
presided over by Ford, impromptu theatricals in which O’Hara sang Irish songs, McLaglen
did vaudeville sketches and even Wayne had to sing. It sounds like hell on

Just a job or not, Wayne is
magnificent in Rio Grande, as good as
he is in Apache and Yellow Ribbon – and that’s saying
something. His Yorke is a fine soldier and commander, and at the same time a
tortured husband and parent, who loves both wife and son but feels he cannot
show it. Scott Eyman, in his excellent biography of Wayne, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, says of Rio Grande, “Wayne’s performance is equal parts steel and grace –
the burden of responsibility leavened by the realization of what that
responsibility has cost him.” In one notable scene Wayne movingly shows the
alienation of Yorke, on the banks of the Rio Grande, now a silvery symbol of
division, when the soldiers are singing in a circle and their commander, unable
to relate, walks alone on the banks, which stretch out to nowhere. His face
shows all the desolation of loneliness. Why John Wayne had to wait till 1970 to
get an Oscar is a total mystery. 
Wayne: very fine performance
period of the cavalry trilogy (made summer 1947 to summer 1950) was one of the
beginning of the Cold War and the start of the ‘Red Menace’. Certainly Ford’s
Westerns, and others, were influenced by this climate and it is not hard to
watch the movies as allegories of the contemporary situation. Rio Grande, in particular, seems to make
more than a passing reference to the Korean War.

The Rio
Grande serves as far more than a river: it is an international border, a line
that must not be crossed. Doing so would unleash war and chaos. Just as General
MacArthur was pushing a hesitant Truman to be allowed to cross the 38th Parallel
and take the war to the Communists, so Ford gives us a story about the necessity
of crossing the Rio Grande to fight the ‘red’ men. Force, it is suggested, is
the only language the ‘reds’ understand. The army cannot subdue the red threat
officially because civilian bureaucrats and wimp diplomats in a spineless Washington
DC will not allow it, but in the movie General Sheridan (J Carrol Naish) tells
Yorke to ignore the ‘niceties’ and pursue the redskins into Mexican territory
to ‘solve’ the problem ‘once and for all’ (i.e. exterminate the Apache). It was
Sheridan, we remember, who was supposed to have said, “The only good Indians I
ever saw were dead” (though he denied it). Newsreels shown with Rio Grande would have pictured MacArthur
staring through binoculars across the River Chongjon in Korea, just as John
Wayne stared through his over the Rio Grande.
Sheridan as Macarthur
But we
can overdo this allusion. Rio Grande
was shot in June/July 1950, just as Kim Il-Sung was launching his invasion, and
well before any talk of crossing the 38th Parallel in retaliation. The première
of Rio Grande happened in November
1950 when that was a possibility but it was a fortuitous coincidence. Mission with No Record, James Warner
Bellah’s Saturday Evening Post story
on which Rio Grande was based, was published
in 1949. Nevertheless, the similarities between Rio Grande and the situation in Korea were very evident to

In fact,
Rio Grande rather ducks the issue in
the end. The decision is taken for Sheridan and Yorke, who are spared the
necessity of acting on their transgressive strategy. Apaches take children
hostage and rape and kill a white woman. This, of course, is the most classic
of Western tropes, and rescuing innocent white captives from the ‘savages’ trumps
any military or political imperatives. A bold mission must be launched. When
Yorke’s forces reach the village across the border where the children are being
held, in a (symbolic) church, there are conveniently no Mexicans at all to be
seen, only Apaches, and the Apaches are all men – there are no women or
children. These Apaches are not at all the brave, worthy foe under
statesmanlike Cochise that Fort Apache
had portrayed. Whooping, they advance menacingly towards the church, to
perpetrate who knows what horrors. They utter weird and savage cries, as unintelligible
a babble as Chinese or North Korean would be to the American audience. All this
builds the justification for Yorke and his soldiers to wipe them out.

A very fine film
action is well handled, and exciting. There are Western historical/mythical
allusions: the church the children are kept in has a distinctly Alamo-ish appearance,
and two of the little boys wear 7th Cavalry emblems on their caps. But this is
no tragic sacrifice or last stand: heroism and courage win the day and the
children are all brought safely back north of the Rio Grande. Before leaving,
Sgt. Quincannon (McLaglen) genuflects before the Catholic high altar to
underline the restoration of ‘civilization’ to this barbaric place after the
savage menace. You see, Ford seems to be saying, the heroism of individuals or
small groups of Americans can
overcome all obstacles and shape the future for us.

rescue mission magically brings about a happy ending to the film. The colonel’s
wife is converted to the necessity of her husband and son fighting, and is
reconciled to Yorke; Yorke is wounded, showing human vulnerability; and his son
pulls out the arrow and saves his father, becoming a man; the Apaches are
defeated (and, as there are no prisoners to be seen afterwards, presumably
annihilated); Northerners and Rebs show they can work together against a common
enemy and Tyree even gets a medal. It’s all a bit too neat, really, but never

In this
respect, also, Rio Grande owes more
to Fort Apache than it does to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Yellow Ribbon was, despite its bright Technicolor,
a gloomier piece, with a declining and aging Nathan Brittles (Wayne) on the
point of retirement and it gave us an essentially pessimistic and
backward-looking view of the frontier, while Apache and Rio Grande are
classic ‘progressive’ stories in which the bravery of Western heroes brings civilization
to the West.

movies do not influence geopolitics and world events have little influence on
Western movies. Still, there is sometimes an interesting congruence. The movie
went down very well, and has grown in stature ever since. It is indeed very
fine (it’s not every day that a Western gets a Jeff Arnold five-revolver
rating, you know) though if I had to pick one of the three it would be Fort Apache. Dollars flowed into
Republic’s coffers and Ford, Wayne, O’Hara and McLaglen got their wish and went
off to Ireland to film The Quiet Man
(not a movie I care for but then it’s not a Western).


9 Responses

  1. Terrific write up on a really fabulous film. Sometimes, working with less gets you more ….. Something contemporary Hollywood should learn!

    1. Good point. For example, movies (and books) are often far too long these days but quantity does not equal quality!

  2. Having watched Fort Apache again in the last couple of weeks, it does seem to me that York was a union officer (a major) in the Civil War, not a Confederate.

    1. Hello Nicholas. I described Wayne's character as "a former rebel", not "a former Rebel". I meant that he was rebellious by nature (not a conformist), not that he was a Confederate in the Civil War. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. I wonder what it would take to get The Trilogy up on the Big Screen again. I took my brood to a revival of SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON at the St. Louis Art Museum back in the 90s; Phantom Events has been doing a splendid job lately with TCM and the Carmike folks and might be persuaded … at least for SWAYR.

  4. Wayne’s strict, hard ass character seems akin to Col. Ranald McKenzie, commander of the 4th Cavalry. McKenzie was the most effective Indian fighter of the post Southern Rebellion cavalry commanders (during the Rebellion US Grant though McKenzie the most promising young officer in the Army) and he led his troops across the Rio Grande to punish Kickapoos ( transplanted from Illinois to northern Mexico) who raided in Texas.

  5. Does anyone think that Ford should have had Wayne's character pull a Colonel Thursday and have a Custer like last stand for Yorke?

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