THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013


# 11

RIO GRANDE (Argosy/Republic, 1950)

DIRECTOR: John Ford; PRODUCERS: John Ford and Merian C. Cooper; WRITERS: James Kevin McGuiness from story by James Warner Bellah; CAMERA: Bert Glennon

CAST: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen, Grant Withers, Peter Ortiz, Steve Pendleton, Jack Pennick, Ken Curtis, Patrick Wayne (screen debut), Cliff Lyons, Alberto Morin, Stan Jones, Fred Kennedy, Chuck Roberson, Eve March, Karolyn Grimes, The Sons of the Pioneers

John Wayne is Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke
The story is told that John Ford wanted to make THE QUIET MAN which would be set in Ireland and would be distributed by Republic Pictures.  However, Herbert Yates, the head of Republic, a studio famous for producing action-filled Westerns, had no faith in Ford's Irish project, seeing it as a big money loser.  Finally, Yates relented, but only after Ford first consented to making a money-making Western.  That Western was RIO GRANDE.

If this story is true, then Ford did not originally set out to complete his so-called "cavalry trilogy" comprising RIO GRANDE, FORT APACHE (RKO, 1948), and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO, 1949).  And if this story is true, movie fans owe a debt of gratitude to Yates for insisting that the Western be made.  And if this story is true, both Yates and Ford were doubly blessed, because two years later THE QUIET MAN would be a huge hit.  Furthermore, the two Ford films would provide Republic with its two most prestigious films.

John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, and Victor McLaglen in one of the movie's great scenes

Like the other two cavalry films in the trilogy, RIO GRANDE's screenplay is based on a story by James Warner Bellah. The location shooting takes place in both Monument Valley and the area around Moab, Utah.

Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne), like all fort commanders on the western frontier, has his hands full. He commands a cavalry outpost located near the Mexican border and he doesn’t have enough troops to pacify raiding Apaches (portrayed as usual in Ford’s films by Navajos). His situation was not unlike other post commanders on the American frontier during the post-Civil War era. From Montana to Arizona and all points in-between, the cavalry was stretched to the breaking point. But Col. Yorke’s situation is somewhat different in that the Apaches are able to escape into a sanctuary located on the other side of the Rio Grande and Yorke is not allowed to pursue them there.

As forbidding as all this may be, Yorke’s life is about to become even more complicated – his personal life, that is. Among a group of green recruits reporting to the post is his son, Jefferson (Jarman), who has recently flunked out of West Point. Father and son haven’t seen each other since the son was a small boy. Complicating matters is that Yorke will bend over backwards not to show any special preference for his son and probably will not even accord him equal treatment. Be that as it may, the son doesn’t expect nor desire preferential treatment. His goal is to prove that despite his academic record he can be a good soldier.

"...put out of your mind any romantic ideas that it's a way of glory.  It's a lifetime of suffering and hardship, an uncompromising devotion to your oath and your duty." -- Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (John Wayne)
If matters aren’t complicated enough already, who should arrive at the fort but the Colonel’s estranged southern wife, Kathleen (O’Hara), who is on a mission to buy her son’s discharge from the army. Of course he refuses to sign a release or try to influence his son’s decision.

Later we discover that the reason that Yorke has not seen his son in such a long while and why he and his wife are estranged is that fifteen years earlier, during the Civil War, General Sheridan had ordered Yorke to destroy the southern plantation owned by Kathleen’s family.  In the aftermath, she left Yorke and refused to allow him to see his son.

That sets the stage for what follows.  Eventually, Yorke is given orders to cross the Rio Grande and pursue the Apaches, setting up a climactic battle.  Wayne would later say that he saw the film as a parable for the Korean War that was being fought at that time, that the Apaches escaping across the Mexican border was akin to the Chinese sanctuary north of the Yalu.  I have never seen anything that indicated that either Ford or anyone else associated with the film agreed with his analysis.

the Colorado doubling for the Rio Grande
In RIO GRANDE, Ford replays his favorite antagonisms: home against army, privilege against duty, private good against public order, and mercy against the law.  The film may have been an afterthought and not as elaborately staged as its cavalry predecessors, but it is nevertheless a classic film and although I have great respect for the other two, I like this one even more.

The film is notable for, among other things, being the first of several pairings of Wayne and O'Hara.  The two would co-star in a total of five films, including three that would be directed by Ford (RIO GRANDE, THE QUIET MAN, and THE WINGS OF EAGLES (MGM, 1957).  In the other two films in which they appeared together (MCCLINTOCK! (Batjac/UA, 1963) and BIG JAKE (Batjac/NG, 1971), they are back where they started, married but living apart.

John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, and Claude Jarman, Jr. as father, mother, and son

O'Hara also starred in two films directed by Ford that did not feature Wayne.  The first was HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (Fox, 1941).  The highly acclaimed film co-starred O'Hara with Walter Pidgeon and child star Roddy McDowall.  It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five, and beating out CITIZEN KANE (RKO,1941) for the Best Picture award.  O'Hara also co-starred with Tyrone Power in Ford's THE LONG GRAY LINE (Columbia, 1955).

Young Claude Jarman, Jr., only 16-years-old at the time, gives a strong performance as the son.  Harry Carey, Jr. wrote in his memoir, Company of Heroes, that Jarman displayed his natural athletic ability when he quickly learned how to do something that had taken Carey and Ben Johnson weeks to learn.  Carey, who had been around horses all his life and was a good horseman admits that it took him weeks to be able do the roman-riding stunt and that even then the mounting part had to be done by a stuntman.  Jarman, on the other hand, was able to perform the stunt almost immediately and accomplished it even more easily than Johnson, who was a former stuntman.

This is the beginning of the roman-riding sequence performed by Ben Johnson and  Harry Carey, Jr.  That is Johnson in the white shirt who has already made the mount.   Carey admitted he had trouble making the running mount.  A stuntman made the mount in place of Carey and then the action paused so that Carey could replace the stuntman and complete the ride and the film was cut in such a way as to make it appear that Carey had also made the mount.  That is probably the stuntman beyond Johnson.  
By the way, these three young actors are perfectly cast and they just about steal the film from Wayne and company.  They are one of the main reasons that this film ranks as one of my favorites.

Jarman, at age 12, had made his screen debut in a big way four years earlier when he co-starred with Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman in THE YEARLING (MGM, 1946).  For his work in the film he was awarded a special "juvenile oscar."  Despite that great beginning, Jarman did not appear in many films.  RIO GRANDE was only his second and he would appear in only three more, the last in 1956, and his final acting role came in 1978 in the TV mini-series, CENTENNIAL.

young Claude Jarman, Jr. in The Yearling, his film debut

Chill Wills, who first appeared in films in 1935, received his first notable role in RIO GRANDE, and he gives a strong, rather restrained, performance as the command's surgeon.

Victor McLaglen is on board once again doing his Irish sergeant comedy act.  Fifteen years earlier he had won a Best Actor Academy Award in a harrowing straight dramatic role.  The film was THE INFORMER (RKO) and it was directed by -- who else? -- John Ford.  Two years after RIO GRANDE he would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor in THE QUIET MAN, portraying a character reminiscent of the sergeants he portrayed in Ford's cavalry films.

Ken Curtis, at the time the lead singer for the Sons of the Pioneers, and future son-in-law of John Ford, gets to serenade the leading lady in the film.  He was a former big band singer who later became a B-Western singing cowboy.  He would become a member of the John Ford stock company and eventually become a TV star as Festus Haggen in the GUNSMOKE series.


Festus and Marshal Dillon

Ken Curtis, B-Western singing cowboy

"As an actress whose strength equals John Wayne's, O'Hara convincingly portrays a wife who fails to understand her husband's unswerving commitment to military duty....The emphasis on familial relationships elevates this film above the boundaries of a simple cowboy picture and places it in the realm of the philosophical....[It has] beautiful scenery, some good action and plenty of human interest. -- Steven H. Scheuer

"RIO GRANDE is an almost balletic story of the relationships among a man and his two loves -- his wife and the cavalry." -- J.A. Place in The Western Films of John Ford

"...if RIO GRANDE is a minor work, it offers, especially in scenes devoted to minor characters...a wealth of Fordian moments." -- Phil Hardy in The Western

"The last of director Ford's Cavalry trilogy...and the most underrated; a vivid look at the gentlemanly spirit of the Cavalry during post Civil War days...and the difficult relationship between an estranged father...and his son...." -- Leonard Maltin

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