Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen, Grant Withers, Sons of the Pioneers (as the Regimental Singers), Patrick Wayne
The third part of Ford’s celebrated Cavalry Trilogy, following Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It’s the first of five movies with John Wayne playing opposite to Maureen O’Hara; they were both strong characters and there had been doubts about pairing them for a movie, but they became good friends. The film also marks the film debut of John’s son Patrick (he plays one of the children).
The story is set fifteen years after the Civil War, but the theme is still (like in Yellow Ribbon) reconciliation. North and South must unite under the US flag and stick together in pursuit of marauding Indians. At a personal level, the theme of reconciliation is reflected by the relationship of an inhibited, stubborn officer, Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne) with his estranged wife (O’Hara) and his son, a boy he hasn’t seen since the end of the war. The young man was dropped as a cadet at West Point, but subsequently enlisted in the cavalry and is now assigned to his father’s regiment at the frontier. Soon after the boy, the mother also arrives at the outpost, to buy her son free.
Rio Grande was an adaptation of a story by J.W. Bellah, whose writings had served as the base for all three movies of the trilogy. Bellah’s story, called Mission with No Record, was based on an actual raid executed in 1873. A number of Kickapoo Indians had left their reservation and fled into Mexico; from time to time they were launching surprise attacks from their base south of the border. Eventually an officer from Fort Clark was ordered - unofficially - to put an end to the raids, even if the campaign violated the sovereignty of another nation. The action almost led to an international conflict and reportedly General Sherman was much angered at the operation that was planned behind his back (1).
In the movie the army still crosses the border, but the punitive expedition is turned into a rescue mission when a wagon load of women and children, sent by Colonel Yorke to another fort for savety, is intercepted by the Indians. The children are held captive in a church south of the border and the situation leaves Colonel Yorke no choice: he must act and must act without hesitation. Yorke sends his most daring trooper, Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) forward to infiltrate the Indian camp and protect the children so he can launch a full-scale attack on the camp without putting the children in danger. Tyree is given permission to choose two other troopers to accompany him and to Yorke’s shock his own son is one of the two men chosen ...
Rio Grande is often called the most beautifully filmed of the cavalry pictures, but at the same time many regard it as the weakest of the trilogy. The story of the the broken down marriage and the son who grew up without his father is well-handled, but it offers few surprises; of course the two still love each other and of course the young man proves himself in battle. The songs performed by The Pioneers aren’t completely redundant - the 'Kathleen song' neatly illustrates the feelings of the protagonists - but there are too many of them and they’re not well integrated into the movie. The conflict with the Indians lacks a 'bad character' such as Henry Fonda’s Owen Thursday, the irresponsible martinet from Fort Apache who was played off against Wayne’s knowing Sergeant York (then written without the 'e').
As a result Rio Grande is - more then the other parts - a movie of moments: some incredible horse stunts, performed by the actors themselves (*2), drunken Indians performing a death song in the middle of the night, O’Hara opening Wayne’s war chest, finding a music box that plays 'I’ll take you home, Kathleen' (her name in the movie) and above all that majestic scene of Colonel Yorke all alone on a hill, grieving for the past, thinking of what might have been, agonizing the difficult task he has been assigned.
*1) Gary Wills, John Wayne’s America, p. 181-183. The story of Rio Grande is set in 1879, fifteen years after 'Shenandoah’
* 2) See: http://www.westernhorseman.com/archive/classic-articles/198-ben-johnson - The text says: "(...) in Rio Grande, he and fellow actors Claude Jarman Jr. and Harry Carey Jr. did their own stunt work in a spectacular Roman-riding scene that's still a film classic. Anyone who views that scene can easily see that Johnson is a real horseman."