“You’ve chosen my way of life. I hope you have the guts to endure it. But put out of your mind any romantic ideas that it’s a way of glory. It’s a life of suffering and of hardship, and uncompromising devotion to your oath and your duty.”
Rio Grande was the third film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy — the others were Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. A third film was never actually intended, but it came about because for many years, Ford had wanted to make a film of an Irish story he had come across called “The Quiet Man.” He had no success in raising the necessary studio support and funding until he finally approached Herbert J. Yates, the head of Republic Studios. Republic was a smaller studio specializing in B-westerns and serials, but it did have a contractual relationship with John Wayne, and it was at Wayne’s suggestion that Ford approached Yates. Yates was not greatly impressed with “The Quiet Man” story either, but he told Ford that he would finance it if Ford, along with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, would first make a black and white western for Republic. Thus came about Rio Grande.
The film, which had working titles of “Rio Bravo” (the Mexican name for the Rio Grande) and “Rio Grande Command,” was shot on location in Moab, Utah — an area not unlike Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, but on a smaller scale. The Colorado River which flowed through Moab doubled for the Rio Grande. Shooting was carried out under fairly hot conditions in June and July 1950 and the completed picture was released by Republic in mid-November.
Artisan has now released Rio Grande on DVD for the second time. This version is a Collector’s Edition featuring several important additions to the material available on the company’s first effort, but also a couple of notable omissions.
Lt. Colonel Kirby Yorke is the commander of a cavalry detachment stationed in the American Southwest. He is attempting to capture a group of renegade Apaches who have managed to elude him by crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, taking advantage of army policy not to cross that river. Returning from his latest skirmish with the Apaches, Yorke finds that his son Jeff, having recently failed at West Point but subsequently enlisted as an ordinary soldier, has been assigned to his command. He also discovers that Jeff’s mother, and Kirby’s estranged wife, Kathleen, has also arrived at the fort in an effort to buy her son’s way out of the army.
Jeff, however, has no intention of allowing his mother to get him out of the army and with his newfound army buddies Travis Tyree and Sandy Boone, he soon settles in to army life. Renewed Indian attacks force Yorke to evacuate the post’s women and children, but in so doing the children are captured and imprisoned in an old church. With Jeff, Tyree, and Sandy sneaking into the Indian’s encampment first to protect the children, Yorke leads a raid that he hopes will end the renegade problem for good.
Rio Grande is a film that has grown in stature over the past half century. Initially viewed as just a quick means-to-an-end by Ford to enable him to get his pet project made, it has gradually become clear that there is nothing rushed or thoughtless about even the slightest aspect of the film. Certainly there has always been something for everyone — action, romance, comedy, daring stunts, songs, a beautiful title melody, breathtaking scenery — not to mention several of those special Ford moments where he simplifies pages of dialogue into a word or a small gesture that says it all. What have come to be appreciated even more are the film’s symmetry, its fine acting, and Ford’s love for the characters and the types of people they are.
One of the film’s finest sequences is the troop’s return to the fort at the start of the picture. We see the long line of exhausted, dusty troopers pass by after they enter the fort’s main gate, but the most telling part of the sequence is the crowd of quiet wives who anxiously look at the rows of passing soldiers, each of them eager for a glimpse of the familiar face that will signify that her man has returned to her unharmed. The same sort of ride-past occurs near the film’s end when the troop once again returns. We didn’t know any of the individual women at the beginning, but now we do know Kathleen and we can empathize as she searches for Kirby. When she finds him, wounded and lying on a makeshift stretcher behind a horse, no words are necessary between them. She simply takes his hand and walks with him as the horse drags his stretcher to the hospital. It’s a powerful statement of how far their relationship has come during the course of the film’s events.
Relationships are at the film’s core, and Ford probes many different ones with care and understanding. The most heartfelt one is between Kirby and Kathleen, but equally effective are those between Kirby and his son Jeff, between Jeff and his friends Tyree and Sandy, and between Sergeant Quincannon and Kirby and Kathleen. Music and comedy are used to advantage in all of these, with the latter particularly memorable due to the singing of the Sons of the Pioneers headed by Ken Curtis. Composer Victor Young contributes a truly memorable theme that plays over the opening credits and evokes the relationship between Kirby and Kathleen whenever it recurs. It is Ford’s attention to these relationships that balances the film’s action scenes so well and raises this western above so many others.
John Wayne continued his steady progress as an actor with a fine job playing Kirby. Maureen O’Hara appeared with Wayne for the first time (there would be four more films with him) and added further proof that she was an excellent actress. She is often overlooked in any list of the finest actresses of the 1940s and 1950s. Wayne and O’Hara are very comfortable together and when they look at each other, there is an obvious connection. Claude Jarman Jr. does pleasing work as Jeff Yorke. Ford once again gathered many of his stock company of performers around him. Included were Victor McLaglen (Quincannon), Ben Johnson, and Harry Carey Jr. (Tyree and Sandy, who do some amazing Roman riding), Ken Curtis (singing trooper), and Jack Pennick (as a trooper). Missing, for a change, were such faces as Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, and Francis Ford.
Artisan’s Collector’s Edition DVD appears to use the same transfer that graced its previous release of Rio Grande. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, for that release looked very good, as does this one. The image is very clean and sports an excellent gray scale range from deep blacks to clean whites with fine shadow detail as a result. There is some slight edge enhancement, but it’s not a problem. Some day-for-night sequences don’t work too well, but overall, this is definitely among the better black and white transfers, although it doesn’t match the best such efforts.
The audio comes in two flavours — the original mono (Dolby Digital 1.0) and an enhanced version that is a curious Dolby Digital 3.1. The original mono does the job quite adequately and is free of age-related hiss. The enhanced version isn’t bad either. It’s louder and has just a bit more warmth to it. The problem arises with what’s been lost from the earlier release, namely French and Spanish language tracks and subtitles. Only English closed captioning has been retained.
The supplementary package is quite comprehensive for this vintage of film. Carried over from the first release is a 21-minute making-of documentary hosted by Leonard Maltin. It’s one of the better of its kind and covers all the obvious bases in terms of production details, casting, location work, and so on. It includes interviews with Ben Johnson (now deceased), Harry Carey Jr., and Michael Wayne (John Wayne’s son). A new mini-documentary hosted by Maureen O’Hara called “Along the Rio Grande” is a good companion piece. The key supplement is a new full-length audio commentary by now 82-year-old Maureen O’Hara whose spirit and voice seem unaffected by the 52 years since she starred in the film. Her commentary focuses on reminiscences about the people and places that each scene of the film reminds her of. It’s a little folksy at times, but it’s a pleasant way to experience the film a second time. The supplements are rounded out by three trailers for Artisan’s DVD releases of Rio Grande, High Noon, and The Quiet Man. Here I must take issue with the fact that Artisan has jettisoned Rio Grande‘s original theatrical trailer in favour of a newly created advertising piece.
Rio Grande — John Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Moab, finely crafted story, Victor Young score — what’s not to like?
Despite a couple of quibbles about Artisan’s decision to drop several aspects of its original DVD release, I am quite pleased with its new Collector’s Edition of the film. If you have the original release and don’t care about supplements, there’s no reason to upgrade. But if you don’t have that version or you do but you’d like to have the benefit of Maureen O’Hara’s commentary, this new version is highly recommended.