While it isn’t up there with John Ford’s greatest films, Rio Grande, initially released in 1950, is an understated and nuanced film in the guise of a run of the mill western, with excellent performances from its main cast. The third and final film in Ford’s ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ after Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, it follows John Wayne’s Lieutenant Kirby Yorke, who is posted on the Texas frontier in 1879 as protection for settlers against Apache attacks. Things are complicated when his son Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.), who has recently joined up with the Army, is assigned to his father’s regiment, much to the chagrin of his estranged wife, Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) who arrives to take him home.
The family dynamic forms the crux of the most interesting parts of the film as the trio try to forge a relationship and navigate a past that divides them. Yorke is a more three-dimensional character than anyone might expect, and Wayne does a good job of portraying this, bringing a subtlety to the role not often associated with broad strokes westerns of the era. O’Hara, however, is the star of the show. She gets across so much in just an expression or word, stealing every scene she’s in. Kathleen is another character that could so easily have been dismissed as two dimensional, but the strength of O’Hara’s performance makes her feel real enough to create a proper connection with the audience.
It wouldn’t be a western without some action set pieces however, and these are handled with typical style by Ford, this new Blu-Ray release allowing them to be enjoyed in full splendour. Whether it’s watching people ride two horses simultaneously while standing up or some choreographed fight scenes amidst a vast and beautiful landscape, there’s definitely enough to whet the appetite of the average western fan too. Those elements aren’t what make it stand out among the crowd however. The film utilises them as background for its more insular story, relying on the strength of its characterisation to overcome a more run of the mill narrative on that front, despite the skill of the set pieces themselves.
Rio Grande doesn’t forge a new path like some of its counterparts and it’s not as affecting as some of Ford and Wayne’s other collaborations, but there’s enough there to showcase the talents of its cast and overcome some of its tendency to revert to the obvious during its more genre pandering moments.
Dir: John Ford
Scr: James Kevin McGuinness
Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Claude Jarman Jr., Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen
Prd: John Ford, Merian C. Cooper
DOP: Archie Stout
Music: Victor Young
Runtime: 105 mins
Rio Grande is out now on Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema series.