January 5th, 2021
MOVIE: RIO GRANDE
STARRING: JOHN WAYNE, MAUREEN O’HARA, HARRY CAREY JR., VICTOR MCLARGEN
DIRECTED BY: JOHN FORD
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
It was not the first time I had watched John Ford’s Rio Grande and it certainly will not be the last. Olive Films is celebrating the legendary directors cavalry western, in a gorgeous remastered signature blu-ray, complete with in-depth extras, and informative tidbits about the fantastic film. But something about this viewing, for me personally, hit differently. I don’t think I was as emotional the first time around, and although the film was made in 1950, it’s the true praise for a movie that in 2021, it can still have a powerful impact today. The star is John Wayne, tall in stature and in name, playing Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, leader of the U.S. cavalry, and posted as protectors of the U.S. side of the Rio Grande river. He is the leader of his troops, but when his son Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.) is stationed there, the conflict becomes personal, and when his wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) arrives, it becomes a family affair. In the classic John Ford way, there are battles with Native American tribes, there are songs sung by the fire, there are laughs, and gorgeous settings in the western valley. That’s the dressing. Everything else about Rio Grande is a message of family sticking together and that left an even bigger impact on me the second time around.
An interesting fact about Rio Grande is that it was a movie Ford himself was not fully interested in making. At this point in the directors career, he already made Stagecoach, Fort Apache, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, so another western wasn’t where his heart was at. Ford wanted to make The Quiet Man, but Republic Pictures informed Ford that if he wanted to make his Ireland set romance, they needed another western from him. And so we get Rio Grande, written by James Kevin McGuinness, which proves that Ford could make these kinds of movies in his sleep, but the director’s graceful touch turns any story to gold. Rio Grande is much simpler than some of Ford’s other films, but yet in its simplicity, it is his most honest, most genuine story told. It’s also John Wayne at his most subdued, playing a character that not only worries about the well being of his troops, but now the well being of those he loves. When his son arrives, colonel Yorke lets it be known that no special treatment will be granted, while son Jefferson doesn’t want his favors, but as soon as he exits the tent, the colonel is looking to see if his son is taller than him. He cares. He just can’t show that side. His love is a prideful love. Rio Grande is about family, it’s about the relationship between a father and son, but it’s also about the wife and the mother, the person that knows exactly who these two men are to their very core.
There are two factors about Rio Grande that John Ford, and only John Ford can add to a movie and it immediately becomes his own. The music, supported by the singing of the Sons of Pioneers, a quartet of sweet singing folk stars that serenade us in between the drama. It’s the kind of touch that would be viewed as incredibly retro to a younger audience, but it’s incredibly unique for how the music is an integral part of the community, the characters, and the story. The other factor is the supporting cast of character actors, lead by the legendary Victor McLaglen as Colonel Yorke’s right-hand man Major Quincannon, Harry Carey Jr. (a John Ford regular) as Trooper Boone, and Ben Johnson doing his own stunts riding two horses at a time. They all bring their own flare to characters and Ford uniquely blends them all together into the story of innocent men fighting in wars and a time they hope to survive.
Above all those fascinating technical parts to a John Ford film, Rio Grande is an entertaining drama, including an ambush scene, followed by a fast paced carriage and horse chase, and then a climactic third act rescue mission. Ford’s portrayal of the two sides is also never offensive to Native American tribes, where he authentically uses Navajo men and women, and draws the line of two sides, not good or bad. Rio Grande also has one of Maureen O’Hara’s more unsung performances. As the focus of the narrative becomes father and son headed to retrieve children taken as hostages by the Apache tribe, Ford allows O’Hara to be the emotional thermometer, delivering a performance in her eyes and not in her words. In the end of the film, an injured Kirby holds hands with his loving wife, and the gentle touch says more than anything in the entire Rio Grande script.
On top of all of that, Rio Grande is magnificent to look at, beautifully remastered by Olive Films, capturing Bert Glennon’s picturesque landscapes, where even in black and white, the colors are nearly created for themselves in your minds-eye. Blue skies, red sands, and golden suns. It’s all there in Rio Grande. The blu-ray even has complete extras about the Sons of Pioneers, a making-of feature with Leonard Maltin, and video essays from film critics. If this was going to be your first time watching a John Ford film, Rio Grande would be the perfect place to start. It might not be Ford’s most talked about movie, but I’m hoping it will become the movie that new generations will fall in love with.
RIO GRANDE OLIVE SIGNATURE BLU-RAY IS AVAILABLE AT OLIVEFILMS.COM RIGHT NOW- LINK
Written by: Leo Brady