Updated: Feb 13, 2021
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
John Wayne teams up with Maureen O’Hara for the first of their five films together. As Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke and his wife Kathleen, they haven’t seen each other since the end of the Civil War, more than 15 years.
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“RIO GRANDE: OLIVE SIGNATURE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray; 1950; Not Rated
Best extra: “Bigger Than Life,” one of three new featurettes
JOHN FORD didn’t plan to make the Cavalry Trilogy – “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and “Rio Grande” (1950).
Each post-Civil War film is loosely connected. They’re based on stories written by James Warner Bellah, and the impact of Custer’s Last Stand on Western settlers. "Rio Grande" has its roots in “Mission with No Record,” which appeared in a 1947 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. American Indians are the enemy, fighting the U.S. Cavalry whose mission was to protect settlers as they journeyed and settled west.
One of the distinctions of Ford’s work – as opposed to other directors of his time – is his use of actual Indians and their language, even though in the cavalier Hollywood way. Raoul Trujillo explains in “Telling Real Histories,” a 2019 bonus feature included in Olive Signature Collection’s presentation. Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Trujillo is an actor, dancer and the original choreographer and co-director of the American Indian Dance Theatre. Their portrayal in classic Westerns such as “Rio Grande” was as accurate as the happy slaves in Civil War movies.
(1&2) Mostly filmed in the Moab region of Utah with a budget of $1.2 million, “Rio Grande” premiered November 15, 1950. (3&4) Children run from the school as the wives await the soldiers’ return at the U.S. Cavalry fort near the Rio Grande River.
(1&2) Lt. Col. Kirby and the men of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment return with Apache prisoners who have been leading raids from the Mexican side of the border. (3) Director John Ford worked with a cast of regulars including Victor McLaglen (left), who played the big-hearted Sgt. Major Quincannon.
The plus in Ford’s trilogy is its use of multi-national citizens who immigrated to America. He felt the U.S. was very much a country of pioneers from several countries – Ireland, France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain – and was determined to represent them.
The other plus is the pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in the lead roles. “Rio Grande” was their first picture together, and the chemistry sizzles. They would go on to make four more films together, becoming one of Hollywood’s greatest on-screen couples.
The film itself, from Republic Pictures, was made in order to finance “The Quiet Man,” a film dear to Ford’s heart. It was to be filmed in color in Ireland, and the studio felt it would be a flop. But “The Quiet Man” became an Oscar-winning hit, earning back its production cost and more.
Wayne and O’Hara play estranged couple Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke and his wife, Kathleen. The Civil War has divided the husband and wife as it divided the country, with Yorke fighting for the Union. The war destroyed Kathleen’s southern home in Shenandoah. Yorke has not seen his son, Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr., “The Yearling”) since he was a baby.
Now 16, Jeff has flunked out of West Point and joined the cavalry. Lt. Col. Yorke is posted on the Texas frontier, defending settlers from Apaches, who ride across the Rio Grande to Mexico to escape capture. Jeff is one of 18 recruits who arrive to join his troop. It’s a surprise for both father and son, although the biggest surprise comes from Kathleen, who shows up to retrieve her underage son. Jeff refuses to leave, promising he’s willing to accept any challenge to prove his worth. Two older soldiers, Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson), on the run from Texas law, and Daniel “Sandy” Boone (Harry Carey Jr.), become Jeff’s pals and mentors.
(1) Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr., right) arrives with 17 new recruits, including Daniel “Sandy” Boone (Harry Carey Jr., center) and Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson, left). (2) Young Yorke gets into a fight with Trooper Heinze (Fred Kennedy). An actor and stuntman, Kennedy died during a stunt for “The Horse Soldiers” in 1958. (3) Kathleen Yorke arrives at the fort planning to have her underage son released from the U.S. Cavalry.
Yorke’s fights off an Apache attack, who again flee to Mexico. Civil War Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish), now Commander of the Milit 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regimentary Division of the Missouri, rides in to order Yorke to cross the Rio Grande to eliminate the Apache threat or face court martial. The orders come with serious political complications since it could compromise the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.
The Apaches then attack a squad taking settlers to safety and seize a wagon filled with children. As Trujillo points out, they’re not in real danger since Indians adopted captured children into their tribes. Still, this provides the impetus for Yorke and his men to cross the Rio Grande and engage the Apaches in battle.
The Olive Signature Collection continues to provide quality 1080p remasters with excellent picture and sound, and a fine collection of bonus features. The black and white film looks very good in its original 1:37.1 aspect ratio. Blacks are solid, with admirable gray scale and brilliant whites. Detail is sharp, even in background scenes. This is the best “Rio Grande” has ever looked.
Dialogue, effects and music are perfectly blended throughout. “Rio Grande’s” original mono soundtrack gets a DTS-HD Master Audio upgrade. Dialogue is clear and distinct, with English subtitles for those who use them. Effects, such as gunshots, horse hooves, wagon wheels, and crackling fires have depth and distinction. Victor Young’s score keeps us in the mood for Western adventure, as do songs from the Sons of the Pioneers.
Critics of the time berated the film for having so many songs. Still, as bonus features point out, singing was the entertainment of the time. There wasn’t much relief between marches and battles. Ken Curtis, who played Festus Haggen on the long-running “Gunsmoke,” takes the lead on “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”
(1) The Apaches hold a ceremony before their escape and ride back across the Rio Grande. (2) Kathleen tries to convince Jeff to return to Virginia with her. (3) Sgt. Major Quincannon comforts Margaret Mary (Karolyn Grimes) during the Apaches raid, which involved three tribes. (4&5) Kathleen watches as her husband and his men of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment ride out to confront the Apache. “John Ford loved dust to create drama,” says historian Tag Gallagher.
New commentary and featurettes provide a history of the film and old Hollywood. Nancy Schoenberger, author of “Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero,” covers anecdotes and themes surrounding the film in her commentary.
Claude Jarman Jr. shares his experiences of working with Ford and Wayne in “Bigger than Life.” He talks about how difficult it was to work with John Ford, a film genius known as a notorious alcoholic and bully. Cast and crew understood the man had to be coddled at every turn or risk harsh and petty retaliation. Even so, Jarman says he learned the most about acting from the man.
Wayne’s son Patrick talks about his father, Ford, and his “Rio Grande” film debut at age 11 in “Strength and Courage.” “Songs of the Rio Grande” features an interview with historian Marc Wanamaker, who talks about the Sons of the Pioneers and the popularity of music during the time.
“Telling Real Histories” is a don’t-miss from Raoul Trujillo about the depiction of Native Americans in Western classics.
“The Making of Rio Grande,” hosted by Leonard Maltin, is an excellent carry-over from earlier presentations.
Look for visual essays by Tag Gallagher and one from Paul Andrew Hutton, which is also presented in an enclosed booklet. Both contain good info and make good reading.
Adventure, action and romance – “Rio Grande” has it in abundance. IMDb reports part of the story, such as the regiment’s crossing into Mexico, “loosely resembles” a 1873 expedition by the 4th Cavalry Regiment under Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie. What an ending for Ford's trilogy!
— Kay Reynolds
(1) Ken Curtis, who played Festus Haggen on the long-running “Gunsmoke,” sings the lead on “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” with the Sons of the Pioneers. (2) Kathleen rolls up her sleeves to do laundry while Sandy and Jeff look on. The Colorado River subs for the Rio Grande.
(1) A trooper says good-bye to his wife and child, as the women and children are evacuated to Fort Bliss. (2&3) During the trip, Apaches ambush the refugees and kidnap the children. (4) Kathleen is worried about the children. (5) Trooper Tyree provides vital information. (6) Native actor Barlow Simpson plays the Apache chief. (7) Trooper Yorke and two other recruits find the children inside a church mission. (8) The Cavalry raid on the village to rescue the children. (9&10) Trooper Yorke pulls an arrow out from his father’s chest. (11) The men of the 2nd Regiment return and Kathleen searches for her injured husband.