#19 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Is this a sequel to Fort Apache? Probably not, but it’s amusing to think of it as one. The third of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, Rio Grande was the movie he agreed to make for Republic Pictures in order for them to fund The Quiet Man, a film no one thought had any chance of being a financial success. Rio Grande was the insurance film to guarantee profit on the overall deal with Ford, and for such an arrangement, it ends up surprisingly good. Even when Ford’s heart really wasn’t in it, his instincts and learned ability still showed up to make the most of the story at hand.
Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) commands a remote cavalry fort near the Mexico border during the Indian Wars, particularly against the Apache. Coming back from a chase of the Indian tribes where they took about a dozen prisoners, Yorke is surprised to learn that the son he hasn’t seen for fifteen years since the boy was only a baby, Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.) had failed out of West Point and joined up with the cavalry as a trooper, being assigned to Colonel Yorke’s unit in an act of pure happenstance. Yorke doesn’t know how to deal with the appearance of his son, bringing him into his tent to make it obvious to him that he will do nothing special for him, that he, in fact, will demand double from his son than from any other trooper. Jefferson understands, having joined up with the cavalry on his own volition, and also having never asked to be assigned to a post under his own father. This all gets complicated with Kathleen Yorke (Maureen O’Hara), Kirby’s estranged wife, shows up at the fort with demands that Jefferson’s commanding officer sign his enlistment away and let him go. Yorke won’t do it, and this is where the movie’s central point comes in.
The movie is really about duty, a not unfamiliar motif and theme from Ford’s films about military life. It gets reinforced through several subplots (and undermined in another, one of my only real complaints in the film), but the center all around Kirby, his son, and his wife. Jefferson signed enlistment papers, so duty compels not only him to follow through but also his commanding officer, his father. The emotional break between Kirby and Kathleen happened during the civil war in the Shenandoah Valley campaign when General Philip Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish) ordered Yorke to burn down the ancestral home of Kathleen’s family in front of her as a matter of war. Yorke had to follow those orders, as it was his duty, even if it hurt himself personally by breaking his relationship with his wife. Sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) was the one who actually carried out the order, spitting on the hand that did the deed every time Kathleen yells at him, calling him an arsonist.
The subplot that bothers me revolves around another of the new recruits, Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson). Wanted for manslaughter back in Texas because he got into an argument with a man who was threatening his sister, killing the man, he’s on the run from the US Marshalls. In my mind, and how the story seems to play out when it’s detailed, is that Tyree will go back to Texas with the Marshall because it’s his duty to stand for the crime that he admittedly committed, no matter how justified. However, Quincannon offers him the opportunity to slip free from the Marshall’s grasp and Tyree’s story becomes a source of levity. It doesn’t seem to fit, unless you consider duty to the US Cavalry to be of greater importance to duty to the people of the American nation which the Cavalry serves. I get the sense it was added because Johnson was a fun actor with his laconic way of talking, and you just really need to take advantage of that.
The bulk of the film is this sort of easygoing character-based storytelling with spates of plot based action about the Indian tribes threatening them, mostly a successful escape attempt from their Indian captors helped by a cavalry charge of Apache attackers. The strong character focused narrative ends up giving way to pretty typical Western action stuff with Sheridan, growing tired of the limits on his own orders, unlawfully expanding Yorke’s by telling him to pursue the Apache forces into Mexico. Splitting the fort up by sending the women and children towards Fort Bliss while the cavalry goes after the Apache, the women and children get attacked, the children kidnapped, and Yorke arrives too late to prevent it, requiring a rescue action in a Mexican town where the children are held up in the church (scouted by Tyree).
Because this is Ford, nothing here is badly filmed. It’s exciting and amusing in equal measure with the children helping to offer up some light comic relief in life-threatening situations. There’s some deserved pathos between the two male Yorkes when the younger willingly puts himself in harms way as well. It just doesn’t seem to follow as well from the more character-based approach the majority of the film had followed up until the action ending really took over. It’s a relatively small complaint, though.
Wayne gives a professionally solid performance, balancing latent regret with a fervent sense of duty really well. I can also see how Maureen O’Hara would capture the imagination of Ford, becoming one of the most memorable of Ford’s leading ladies, a woman of real strength and femininity.
This is probably the middle ground of the Cavalry Trilogy. Fort Apache was so close to greatness while She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was firmly good. Rio Grande is helped by a strong thematic focus that it mostly keeps to while hampered by an action ending that doesn’t quite fit, unlike the pretty much perfect ending action sequence of Fort Apache.