Directed by John Ford
Written by James Kevin McGuinness
Rio Grande is the third and final film in the informal Cavalry trilogy from John Ford, featuring John Wayne in each film, and portraying Captain Kirby York in two of them (not sure why they didn’t just go for the trifecta). This is a very informal trilogy as there is no through line in terms of story. It’s true, they’re all about the cavalry, they all star John Wayne and are westerns. There are similarities, but are only loosely thrown together as a trilogy. But none of that really matters, as each film is its own thing, each film stands on its own, and each film should be evaluated on its own merits. After a lengthier layoff from this marathon than I was hoping (after a broken Blu Ray player delayed me further), I was very excited that a John Ford film awaited my return. But like any journey which restarts, there is still a long way ahead for me.
Kirby York (John Wayne) is a military man who has served his country for many years. He is now stationed with a cavalry unit on the Rio Grande, but soon finds himself dealing with numerous points of drama. To start, his son (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he has not seen in 15 years, has been coincidentally stationed with him after failing out of West Point and enlisting the very next day. He comes with a fresh group of recruits, not enough to help Kirby battle the aggressive Apaches, which includes brilliant horsemen Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Tyree (Ben Johnson), the latter of which is on the lam for manslaughter. Add to all this the presence of a lady (Maureen O’Hara), the mother of trooper York and wife of Kirby, whom she has been separated from for some time now. She has come to collect her son, but soon finds herself once again wrapped up with Kirby and the drama which surrounds her.
It pains me to say this, but this was not my favorite John Ford or John Wayne film. Ford has been a blessing to me and this marathon to this point, as he is a giant of the genre who has delivered the goods on multiple occasions (and I am sure he will continue to deliver the goods in the future), but with this outing, there is just something missing. Wayne is big as ever, inhabiting a character that is quintessential Wayne: large, in charge, country first and even a slight twinge of romanticism underneath the gruff exterior. Kirky York is likely not the issue with the film. But perhaps Maureen O’Hara, or rather her character Kathleen, is to blame. O’Hara delivers quite a nice performance in the role to be honest, but Kathleen’s involvement in the story is very inserted. Without her there is no story, that much is true, but her presence feels so ingenuine that it makes the narrative fall apart for me.
Add to that I didn’t particularly enjoy the dynamics between the principle characters all that much. The military York’s relationship is so very cold, with Kirby showing some curiosity and warmth when he has a moment to himself (like measuring how tall Jeff is), but ultimately their duty to service outshines all else. But with that, the threat of Apaches along the border feels like such a manufactured and lazy threat created to heighten the drama, to insert stakes. The family dynamic is really where the stakes are with this movie, the Apaches are just necessary evil in order to complete the western trope. With all these factors coming into play, they never congeal in any satisfying way that makes me think any of the events unfolding happened organically. It’s all a bit too made up and not nearly exciting enough.
Ford is good with the camera as always, and there’s always something to take away from his films, usually action scenes. Apart from the thrilling horse riding scene featuring the talents of stuntman Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., the action even felt a little flat. All in all, Rio Grande just does not work out to be among Ford’s best work, and I still am not exactly sure why this is a part of the Cavalry Trilogy, other than they wanted to name Wayne’s character the same as in Fort Apache, wherein he takes a backseat to Henry Ford. Of the three, Rio Grande is easily my least favorite, which is all so very frustrating given the talent involved in the film. I suppose greats are allowed to make an underwhelming film every now and again. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become a trend as we’ve entered the 1950s of this marathon.