Film reviews

Rio Grande (1950) – Blu-ray Review

The latest Eureka! Masters Of Cinema release is the final part of director John Ford’s ‘Cavalry trilogy’: Rio Grande, the 1950 tale of an estranged family’s reconciliation, and the redemption of a hardened military officer who’s lost touch with what truly matters to him, after his son – who he hasn’t seen for 15 years – gets posted to serve as a part of his unit.

The movie is set in 1879, almost a decade-and-a-half on from the end of the Civil War, with the nation still healing from the effects of that bitter conflict. Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) is defending the US border with Mexico, protecting against incursions from Apaches, who are seeking refuge south of the Rio Grande river, where the US Cavalry are restricted from going without permission, as it would violate the sovereignty of Mexico.

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Yorke’s life is further complicated by the arrival of his son, Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.), who had been kicked out of the US Military Academy, West Point, but went and enlisted in the Army as a Private immediately after. Unhappy with Jefferson having signed up for service, especially as he’d lied about his age, his mother – and Kirby’s estranged wife – Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) turns up, ready to buy his way out of the military.

Made against the backdrop of the Korean War, Rio Grande happened to be particularly timely, as its story of conflict spanning the border between two nations was mirrored by the dispute over the 38th parallel, which divided North from South Korea. It’s also taken on a contemporary resonance, in light of the current President’s fixation with securing the southern border with Mexico, with a view towards trying to stop what he considers to be undesirable elements entering the country.

John Wayne is synonymous with Westerns, having made his breakthrough in John Ford’s 1939 movie Stagecoach. With the outbreak of World War II coming the same year, Wayne never saw military service himself, as he was initially given an exemption, and was later denied the chance to take up arms after the studio he was signed to intervened with the Army drafting process, in order to keep him at home, as he was their only A-list actor under contract to them.

Wayne seems to have felt great guilt about this, which can perhaps be seen by his endeavours to be a ‘superpatriot’ for the remainder of his life – his support for the McCarthyite witchhunts in the ‘Reds under the bed’ era of the 1950s could be seen as evidence of this; Wayne’s vocal anti-Communist stance was so vocal it was said Joseph Stalin – reportedly a fan of Wayne’s films – was at one point considering having him assassinated.

It could also be said that his patriotism was a reason for his playing so many military roles over the course of his career, in such movies as The Green Berets, The Alamo, Sands Of Iwo Jima, and the first two parts of Ford’s ‘Cavalry trilogy’ – Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Wayne’s character in Fort Apache was named Captain Kirby York – a different spelling, but hard not to see the intention as this being a continuation.

In Fort Apache, Ford gave a far more sympathetic and fair portrayal of the Native Americans, seeking to show them with both respect and honour; by the time of Rio Grande, however, it seems Ford’s views have changed in response to the hardening of his politics, and so here they’re little more than murderous savages. By the time of The Searchers in 1956 (again starring Wayne), it seems as though Ford has softened again, but the damage has already been done, and Rio Grande falls very much into typical Western clichés of ‘Red Indians’ in this respect.

There’s also a certain amount of cloying tweeness at times, with a fair proportion of the film taken up with ‘traditional’ singalongs (even though some of these songs were written specifically for this movie). However, this may be seen as reflecting the style of the time, and what audiences were used to expecting, but to modern eyes it all seems rather unnecessary, and does tend to grind the action to a halt on far too many occasions. A rare exception is the rendition of ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’, helping emphasise the distance that’s grown between Kathleen and Yorke.

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For all these admittedly few flaws, Rio Grande still stands up remarkably well, and given the era in which it was made, it does lack a lot of the posturing and machismo you might expect in a movie about the military – at one point, Yorke takes time to explain to his troops that what they’re doing won’t be easy by any means, and plays down expectations of the audience thinking Army life is full of glory, instead of loss and hardship. It’s surprising to see how much brutality – both direct and implied – is used here, for a movie of its time, and how grubby and grimy people get.

All of this – as well as the whole feature having been shot on location – helps to add a level of verisimilitude lacking in some of the soundstage-based Westerns of the time. In fact, for all the moaning in some quarters about just how prevalent Superhero movies have become, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Westerns were equally as ubiquitous at one time, if not moreso; not every single Western was a bona fide classic, in the exact same way some Superhero flicks fall short. Rio Grande, however, comfortably sits in the upper tiers.

Wayne likely wouldn’t be considered a conventional leading man by today’s standards, which is reflected in his request to have the inscription on his tombstone read ‘Feo, Fuerte y Formal‘, which translates as ‘ugly, strong, and dignified’. Not a traditionally handsome man, Wayne still exudes a certain charm here, playing well off O’Hara, with whom he had a strong off-camera friendship; this certainly seems to help with showing a real chemistry between the pair on screen, and makes it feel credible that there’s still a tangible bond between Yorke and Kathleen, despite their estrangement.

The Blu-ray release itself has a decent range of extras, with two commentary tracks – one of which gives scene-specific commentary by O’Hara; the other is by Stephen Prince, who is an authority on the Western genre, and his commentary is entertaining and informative, helping to provide a lot of useful context and insight. In addition to a pair of archival featurettes taking us behind-the-scenes on the making of the film, there’s also a new video essay by John Ford expert Tag Gallagher; unfortunately, there’s a strange distort on his narration, making him sound like he has his head in a bucket throughout.

Eureka! are past masters at giving us the very best possible quality when it comes to the main feature, and this Blu-ray showcases a brand new transfer completed by Paramount’s preservation department in 2019. The difference between the film as presented here and the excerpts included in the extras is dramatic, as the picture has vivid tone and depth, unlike the scratched, washed-out print used for compiling the archival pieces. The Old West has seldom looked quite so new and sharp, and you can truly appreciate Ford’s eye in capturing such awesome vistas.

During the film, we learn the Mexicans refer to the titular river as Rio Bravo; it actually serves as a fitting description of this Blu-ray as a whole. Bravo, indeed.

Rio Grande is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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