The Rio Grande as 38th Parallel
The success of John Ford’s two cavalry Westerns at RKO, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – click the links for our reviews of those – went a good way to compensating his company Argosy for the heavy loss inflicted by The Fugitive (1947). But not all the way. Ford really wanted to make The Quiet Man in Ireland but that would be costly. At the urging of John Wayne he signed a three-picture deal with Republic. The first of these films would be a Western, another frontier cavalry picture with much of the same cast and crew as the first two, designed to make money and finance his pet project (which Republic studio boss Herb Yates finally agreed to make in 1951). So you could see Rio Grande as an almost cynical exercise, done to ‘cash in on’ Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon, just made, as it were, for a few dollars more.
And yet it turned out to be an absolutely superb picture, the equal of any Ford Western yet.
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.”
As Rio Grande got under way it became more and more a sequel – not to Yellow Ribbon 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. The picture grossed $2.25m in 1950 (it was premièred in San Antonio, Texas on November 1, 1950) and went on to make more.
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 had an inevitably modest budget. 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 made the picture in only five weeks, under budget, 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 loved. Wayne too gave up his 10% cut of the profits. The whole thing was done with tight purse strings. 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.
In fact that is one of the (few) weaknesses of Rio Grande, 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.
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 woman 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 seemed in awe of 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 – though not usually the women. O’Hara was Irish born and a redheaded colleen, so was a goddess to Ford.
The story concerns Colonel & Mrs York(e)’s son, Jeff, who has flunked out of 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 the colonel 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 (many) 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, for example in the hospital or with the children in the church, as a little boy, but other times as a full-grown man, such as when he pulls 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.
It endeared Jarman to Ford and the young actor was spared humiliation at the director’s hands. Wayne was, as ever, supportive and kind to the lad, as he always was to young actors on Ford’s sets.
The 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. In a key scene, in which she rolls up her sleeves with the other women of the fort and does her husband’s washing while singing The Irish Washerwoman, 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 and worthier.
The regiment 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 Harry Carey as Sandy Boone are ex-Confederate troopers. Travis was a sergeant in Yellow Ribbon but appears to have been busted to trooper. There’s a good bit when a US Marshal (Grant Withers again) arrives to arrest him and the regiment protect him and facilitate his escape. Johnson and Carey had been the male leads in Wagonmaster. Chill Wills is the regimental surgeon, and we spot Ken Curtis (soon to become Ford’s son-in-law) 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 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 earth.
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.
The 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’. Fort Apache was shot in 1947, the year the Soviet Union got the bomb, Yellow Ribbon released in the year NATO was founded. 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.
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 spectators.
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.
The action is well handled, and exciting. There are Western historical/mythical allusions. In some ways Yorke seems to be modeled on Colonel Ranald Mackenzie (1840 – 89), who led his 4th Cavalry troops across the Rio Grande to punish Kickapoos (transplanted from Illinois to northern Mexico) who raided in Texas. 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 Custerish last stand: heroism and courage win the day and the children are all brought safely back north of the Rio Grande. Before leaving, Sergeant 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.
The 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); Union men 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 mind. The theme is, without doubt, the redemptive power of reconciliation – unless you are an Apache, of course.
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’ Westerns in which the bravery of frontier heroes brings civilization to the West.
Western movies do not influence geopolitics, and world events have little influence on Western movies. Still, there is sometimes an interesting congruence. The film went down very well, and has grown in stature ever since. It is indeed very fine. Might it be the best of the three? Ah, but I said that about each of the others.
Brian Garfield in his Western Films says, “It may be the best of the three” and adds, “I can think of very few Westerns that are much better than Rio Grande.”
At the time, The (anonymous) New York Times review said, “[John Ford] is traveling a deeply rutted road in spinning a familiar story of military duty versus the dictates of the heart. But the horsemanship never was better, the Indians more dastardly and the cavalry never answered a bugle call more quickly.” Variety said it was “outdoor action at its best, delivered in the John Ford manner.”
Six months later 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).
During this amazingly productive period for Ford, 1948 – 50, he made not only the three truly great Westerns we have just reviewed but also a talkie 3 Godfathers and the absolutely charming (I think) Wagonmaster. We’ll come back to those another day, but now it will be onto other things.