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Rio Grande: Collector's Edition

John Ford's 1950 Rio Grande is best known as the third and final entry in his "U.S. Cavalry Trilogy," which makes it sound a little more purposeful than it actually was. In fact, Ford never had planned a "trilogy" of any sort, but his desire to shoot The Quiet Man — a pet project in development for several years — meant he needed some creative financing. Republic Pictures agreed to get behind The Quiet Man, which would star John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, and Victor McLaglen, but the director and his trio of actors first had to deliver a profitable black-and-white western. Adapted from a short story in The Saturday Evening Post by James Warner Bellah, Ford may have had reservations about making another cavalry movie. Nonetheless, he also had directed a number of literary adaptations before the war (How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath), and with a new decade upon him became convinced that the western genre would deliver his most profitable films. With that in mind, Ford and his production company set out for Moab, Utah, to shoot Rio Grande (originally titled Rio Bravo). Some film historians consider it a "throwaway" project. Then again, John Ford working with lightweight material is still John Ford, and his final look at the U.S. Cavalry contains several thematic elements that defined the director over his long career. John Wayne stars in Rio Grande as U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kirby York, a Civil War veteran who now patrols the U.S./Mexico border, a location frequently under Apache siege. Kirby has made the Army his life, most keenly illustrated by his separation from his wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) and son Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he has not seen in fifteen years. However, the past soon invades Kirby's dusty, war-torn life when Kathleen writes him to let him know Jeff was expelled from West Point for failing mathematics. She expected that the young man would simply attend a different school to continue his education, but before long the former officer's candidate enlists, turning up as a buck private at his estranged father's post. Kirby makes it clear to his son that he will receive no special treatment. However, matters grow worse when Kathleen decides to visit the remote Army post, where she hopes to purchase back her son's enlistment for the price of $100 — and her husband's official signature.

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Being thematically less complex than either Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon — John Ford's two prior cavalry pictures — Rio Grande is nonetheless largely entertaining, and it would be a good viewing choice for folks who are not familiar with Ford's movies of the era. Ford always constructed his westerns around traditional American values, in particular honor, courage, and personal sacrifice — ideal themes for his near-mythic adventure tales. Rio Grande builds upon these values by adding a family unit to the plot — certainly, many of Ford's movies concern families, but here we are presented with just three people, estranged, on the outskirts of the American frontier, and in the midst of the Apache Wars. As usual, Ford gets the most power from the smallest moments, as when Kirby, after brashly dismissing Jeff from his tent, secretly measures the boy's height against the canvas. Rio Grande also was the first of five screen pairings between John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, and it's particularly delightful knowing they would appear in The Quiet Man just two years later, and in completely different roles. Ford's retinue of supporting actors is on hand of course, led by Victor McLaglen as the garrulous Sgt. Maj. Quincannon, while Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. provide comic relief as a pair of laid-back southern boys who are master horsemen (by the way, the dangerous Roman-riding sequence actually was done by the two after three weeks of training). Rio Grande probably has more music than just about any John Ford film, with generous contributions from The Sons of the Pioneers, while a few actors also deliver a fun rendition of Dale Evans' "San Antone." The story eventually leads to an action-filled sequence as the soldiers must rescue four kidnapped children, but Ford couldn't resist a final poetic touch — he selected the somber, downbeat ending, rather than the original screenplay's final notes of reconciliation. Republic/Artisan's DVD release of Rio Grande: Collector's Edition, which replaces the original Artisan disc, features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a clean, rich black-and-white source-print, with audio in the original mono (DD 1.0) or an "enhanced" Dolby Digital 3.0 track that delivers a wider soundstage. Features are generous, and include a full-length commentary from Maureen O'Hara, who is full of recollections about Ford, Duke, and others. Also here is the featurette "The Making of Rio Grande" hosted by Leonard Maltin (20 min.), the featurette "Along the Rio Grande" with comments from O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., and others (18 min.), and promo spots for Republic's western titles on DVD. Keep-case with paperboard slipcover.
—Robert Wederquist

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