A Movie A Week: RIO GRANDE (1950) Well, whatever else the young man is, he’s a good judge of horseflesh.
Published at: June 18, 2009, 4:30 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
As I write this I’m listening to Maureen O’Hara’s commentary on the RIO GRANDE DVD (which O’Hara demands be pronounced as it should be in Spanish (Gron-day), and hates it when people call it “Rio Grand”). I don’t know if I can keep this going while writing up this installment of A Movie A Week, actually. O’Hara’s a compelling speaker and so passionate about her work with Duke and Jack Ford… her personalization, not mine. I wouldn’t dare be so presumptuous that those legends deserve anything less than proper names from a peon like me.
This film is a natural double feature with THE QUIET MAN, last week’s AMAW, however they should be watched in reverse order to how I did it.
RIO GRANDE is a product of passion, however it’s a secondhand product. THE QUIET MAN was a film that Ford had been trying to make for a while, but couldn’t get off the ground. No studio would fund it, even with John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Victor McLaglen on board.
Finally he went to Republic Pictures, via a hook-up from John Wayne, and was told that THE QUIET MAN, a light-hearted romance and love-letter to Ireland, wouldn’t make a dime. BUT. But, if Ford would make a smaller, black and white Western starring the exact same cast for Republic and “make up the money I’m going to lose on your passion project” then he’d go ahead and greenlight Ford’s movie.
I knew all this going into the movie, so naturally I presumed the film was going to have a little less heart. I was sure it was going to be good… it is John Ford, afterall, but I was expecting a little distance.
I should have known better. RIO GRANDE is smaller, it isn’t as flawlessly perfect as THE QUIET MAN, but you cannot say it’s impersonal. There’s so much heart and character jammed into 105 minutes that you’d never guess it was a means to end for Ford and his crew.
Wow, O’Hara just said that Ford called her “herself,” as in “Here comes herself,” when he wasn’t upset with her. O’Hara does not mention what he called her when he was upset. She also just dropped the bomb that she used to live next door to the guy who ran Technicolor and used to always send her a dozen roses, each died a different color, at the start of each of her pictures, with a note addressing her as “His Queen of Technicolor.”
Okay, back on target.
Basically RIO GRANDE is dysfunctional family story told in the US Calvary in the years after the Civil War. It could have easily just been a typical cowboys vs. Indians tale, but Ford somehow injects this sweet, humanizing family story without falling into melodrama.
Wayne plays Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, a man whose duty has destroyed his home life. He hasn’t laid eyes on his son since he was a toddler and he has an estranged Southern Belle wife (O’Hara) who never forgave him for following orders to torch her family plantation during the Civil War. In fact, it’s Yorke’s right hand man, the fantastic McLaglen, who did the deed, we find out, and she can’t forgive him for it.
O’Hara is brought back into Wayne’s life via their son, who flunked out of West Point and turned around, lying about his age, to sign up for the Cavalry like his father. THE YEARLING’s Claude Jarman Jr. plays the younger Yorke… if the IMDB dates are to be trusted, he would have only been 16 when he appeared in this picture.
Jarman doesn’t seek out his father, but fate throws them together. Wayne’s reaction to this new recruit is stony on the outside, not showing any emotion or partiality, but after his first face to face, where Wayne says it’s always duty first and if his kid doesn’t have the balls to be a Calvary officer then he better quit now or risk death in the field, either by Indian or as a coward.
After Jarman leaves the tent, Wayne’s body language completely changes. He saunters over to where his son just stood and marks his height on the tent flap, comparing it to himself.
It’s a simple shot. The camera doesn’t move and we never cut in close, but in that one moment we see the proud father, we see past the military man.
You know, the more I watch these John Wayne movies the more convinced I am that those who say John Wayne couldn’t act never actually watched any of his movies, knowing him only as a caricature, an icon. Wayne says more with his body and eyes in both this and THE QUIET MAN than most actors today.
O’Hara comes in when Jarman gets injured in a brawl with a cavalry officer who accuses him of sucking up to both his father and McLaglen, who is training these young horsemen bound to keep off the invading Apaches who sneak over the Rio Grande from Mexico, then retreat back knowing full well the US Cavalry can’t follow.
It’s actually a great scene, full of humor as McLaglen takes Jarman’s side and ends up throwing more punches than the kid does. But unlike many of Ford’s contemporaries the comic relief is used to further the story. It’s through this fight and Jarman’s unwillingness to rat out his rival that he earns the respect of the men, becoming a real horseman and part of the group.
O’Hara and Wayne’s chemistry is strong, although not as electric as it is in THE QUIET MAN. That’s not their fault. Their characters are radically different. It’s not a fresh love, but a love being rekindled after years of damage. O’Hara clearly has the same spunk that she does in THE QUIET MAN, the fighting Irish in her. She can stare down Wayne and you believe she can stand toe to toe with him.
Oddly enough, you can point to specific scene in THE QUIET MAN that influenced ET… So much so, in fact, that we actually see the scene in the movie… but here there’s another moment that I’m convinced was kicking around the back of Spielberg’s brain when he was developing the character of Marion Ravenwood in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
O’Hara has a scene where she’s toasting the cavalry. It’s a sarcastic scene, she calls it her only adversary because it has destroyed two things she loved… her family and her home. The Cavalry officers oblige her and sip, but Wayne looks her dead in the eye and takes a full shot of whatever drink he has, turning the empty glass upside down and place it on the table. O’Hara is taken aback, but is not about to back down. She takes the drink, gulps it down and gives the stare right back to Wayne.
If that’s not Marion Ravenwood I don’t know what is.
There’s a great subplot about a likable trooper, played by the charming as hell Ben Johnson, who is a natural horseman (naturally, given Johnson’s real life exploits), but also seems to be wanted by the law. By the time the law comes around the group likes him as much as the audience does, so they let him escape… of course, he takes Wayne’s horse while doing so, something that becomes a bit of a running gag.
Of course, Johnson comes back and heroically helps out guys in the final act as the women and children, being escorted away from the danger zone, gets ambushed by the Apaches. The Indians steal the children before the Cavalry (literally) can arrive and the final act is the rescue operation over the river and in Mexico where they have no hope for reinforcements.
Like I said, though, this a much quieter movie than I expected, giving both O’Hara and Wayne a lot of real meat. Ford was no slouch. The dude took this picture as seriously as all his others and that’s very admirable. His usual love of the Western landscape is up on that screen, the camera seriously flirting if not completely making out with the Utah landscape.
What’s interesting is that his love of the Old West is rivaled by his serious jonesing to get going with THE QUIET MAN, so there’s a lot of Irish influence as well, particularly in the singing Cavalry men (Sons of the Pioneers) who sing a song that, I’m told by the voice on the TV, is an old Irish folk song, done back during the British rule where it was against the law to write or sing about Ireland. O’Hara says she taught them the song and on the commentary goes line by line describing what it means.
Fascinating commentary track.
Final Thoughts: Ford plays a lot with emotion in this picture, bucking the standard western formula while at the same time delivering exactly what Merian C. Cooper and the folks at Republic wanted. Wayne is vulnerable in the picture. He’s not a superhero. As is the case with Ford’s best, the movie juggles crazy stunts, character-based humor and real emotional resonance. And then there’s that crazy Roman riding scene!
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, June 22nd: THE GETAWAY (1972)
Monday, June 29th: THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1973)
Monday, July 6th: THE LONG HOT SUMMER (1958)
Monday, July 13th: JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943)
Alright, gotta finish packing and get ready for my morning flight to LA where I’m going to dive into the world of Practical effects and special effects make-up leading up to what’s sure to be an amazing tribute to the living legend Dick Smith. The tribute is going to be hosted by Rick Baker. I have some goodies lined up during my short jaunt westward, so keep the peepers peeled!
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