John Ford’s RIO GRANDE (1950)

By 1950 John Ford was a legend.  He had already received four Academy Award nominations for Best Director with three wins.  Yet, he’d been unable to fulfill a professional posterdream he’d had for fourteen years – to make THE QUIET MAN in the country of his heart, Ireland.  It was thanks to a small movie with a negligible budget, a movie Ford had no interest in making that THE QUIET MAN came to be.

According to John Ford’s son, Patrick the director didn’t want any part of RIO GRANDE.  The film was made thanks to a compromise between Ford and Republic Studio’s President, Herbert Yates who agreed to finance THE QUIET MAN if Ford agreed to make a third cavalry movie to follow the hugely popular FORT APACHE (1948) and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949).  “Well, I’ll tell you what” Ford said, “if I can have my choice of cast in RIO GRANDE, I’ll make it for you” to which Yates replied, “Of course.  Anybody but John Wayne,” which posed a problem – that’s exactly who Ford wanted.  It turns out that Herbert Yates and John Wayne had had a falling out and weren’t on speaking terms so Ford went to Duke, “Go apologize to Yates so he can let you make RIO GRANDE, so I can use you in THE QUIET

Lt. Col. Kirby York and John Ford’s camera

MAN.”  Duke Wayne gave in and the apology was accepted, which set John Ford on a fast track toward Ireland reportedly working faster on RIO GRANDE than in any other of his films, completing it in thirty-two days using 665 takes on a total of 646 setups.  (Scott Eyman)

RIO GRANDE is based on a short story by James Warmer Bellah, “Mission with No Record” that had been published in the Saturday Evening Post.  John Ford hired James Kevin McGuinness to write the screenplay and aside from Duke Wayne used several other actors he was familiar with and that we’ve all come to love to make this rushed movie with a budget set at $1.2 million.  Maureen O’Hara was borrowed from Fox and Ford regulars, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. joined Claude Jarman, Jr., Chill Wills and J. Carroll Naish to make up the superb cast.

RIO GRANDE was filmed entirely in Moab, Utah during the brutal summer of 1950 under very difficult conditions given the heat and required heavy costumes.  Despite that, however, by most

Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson
Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson

accounts this was one of Ford’s most fun films to shoot probably because he just wanted to get through it and move on.  Harry Carey, Jr. actually described the set as “happy-go-lucky,” a rarity where John Ford was concerned.  However, I don’t think Ben Johnson would have described the RIO GRANDE experience as Carey did.  Insulted by comments made by Ford during the making of this film, Johnson wouldn’t work for Ford again for thirteen years when he appeared uncredited in CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964).

RIO GRANDE made a profit for Republic but was not as well received as the previous two entries in what has collectively come to be known as Ford’s “cavalry trilogy.” Although it’s considered a classic this film remains relatively unknown except to ardent Ford and classics fans.  It has through the years become one of my favorite John Ford movies, however, because it possesses many of the elements that make his films so memorable.  Those elements include the many gorgeous, brilliantly framed shots typical of Ford, the tradition and pageantry so important in so many of his movies, and the music, which plays as important a part in RIO GRANDE as it does in many other Ford films.  In fact, there may be a bit too much music in this one, although I enjoy it.  Regarding that fact, by the way, I was somewhat surprised to

Beautifully lit scene - a tender moment between husband and wife
Beautifully lit scene – a tender moment between husband and wife

learn in Scott Eyman’s Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford that the director wasn’t happy about having to use the Sons of the Pioneers who do the singing throughout the movie.  He felt they cheapened the picture because they didn’t look like cavalrymen and weren’t actors.  It was Herbert Yates who insisted they be in the movie because he liked the idea of singing cowboys.  I have to say I’m glad because the singers are part of one of my favorite scenes.

While watching RIO GRANDE again in preparation for this post I’d tweeted that one of the wonders of Ford for me is how in the midst of all the testosterone in his films you also get the kind of tender moments that could make a young girl blush.  That moment and sentiment in RIO GRANDE happens as the Sons of the Pioneers serenade Kathleen Yorke (O’Hara) with the beautiful ballad “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” during her first night at the post where she’s reunited with her estranged husband, Lt.

Kirby and Kathleen are moved when they hear "
Kirby and Kathleen are moved when they hear “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”

Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne).  This scene never fails to make me misty as she hopes the serenade and song were Kirby’s idea, but the commander is embarrassed by the choice of song and apologizes.   Kathleen replies – holding back tears – that she wished it had been his idea.   This is a beautiful scene during which the wonderful Wayne/O’Hara chemistry is evident in this their first of five films together.  In fact, their chemistry in RIO GRANDE is possibly the best of all their pairings and I don’t say that lightly given how much I love them together in all their collaborations.  All of their scenes together in this movie are touching with the palpable sexual energy of a couple that’s deeply in love, but have a huge rift between them.

In his book, Company of Heroes, Harry Carey, Jr. discusses another scene in RIO GRANDE during which Kirby and Kathleen Yorke kiss passionately.  It’s surprising to learn how John Ford felt about filming love scenes given he did them so beautifully:

“The old man enjoyed directing Duke in this role and of course Maureen was with us to make it all the more beautiful.  She was so gorgeous it took your breath away to see her every morning.  I wished I was a leading man and could do a love scene with her like Duke did.  Ford put that scene off until the last day of shooting.  Duke had said during the whole last week of shooting to anyone who would listen (except Jack, of course), ‘Christ, we’re right here on the set.  We could shoot that scene easy now – where I take her in my arms and kiss her – he’s ducking it.  He hates to direct a love scene.  You watch – he’ll put it off ’til the last goddamn day!’  Duke was right.  That’s exactly what happened.”



Worth that wait or what!

The story in RIO GRANDE takes place during the late 1870s in an outpost in Arizona where cavalry officer, Kirby Yorke is stationed.  The threats of the Civil War have been replaced by those of Apache Indians. Yorke has had a successful military career, but is a lonely man who’d sacrificed his family for the cavalry, a decision he’s forced to face head-on when his young son, Jeff (Jarman, Jr.) enlists and ends up at his post.  The Lt. Col. is

Jarman, Jr. and Wayne as father and son
Jarman, Jr. and Wayne as father and son

now forced to command a son who’s a stranger to him.  Complicating matters further is Jeff’s mother, Yorke’s estranged wife, Kathleen who shows up at the post soon after to try to buy Jeff out of the service.

RIO GRANDE is yet another John Ford masterpiece and a must-see.  Although it’s probably safe to say many disagree with that label in regards to this film including Patrick Ford who claimed RIO GRANDE lacks the depth of the other two films in the cavalry trilogy because both the director and Wayne didn’t want to make. To both this one was nothing more than “a job.”  I haven’t seen FORT APACHE in too many years to comment on it, but I find GRANDE at least as affecting a movie as SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON albeit clearly a much simpler production.  Aside from the Wayne/O’Hara pairing this movie offers the story of a son trying to earn the love and respect of a very difficult and demanding father, deep friendships and bonds of honor portrayed memorably by an outstanding cast of supporting players, great action sequences and gorgeous photography by Burt Glennon.  My only complaint about this movie is rio colorthat I care very little about the plot having to do with Apache Indians who are the cause for the action.  I think the personal stories in this work best and are what make RIO GRANDE worth watching repeatedly.  YO!

RIO GRANDE was released in November 1950 and that same month John Ford and Ward Bond left for Ireland along with Herbert Yates.  The two had a mission now that Yates was all set to finance THE QUIET MAN – they were set to show him the splendors of Ireland.  THE QUIET MAN had to be in Technicolor.  Thanks to RIO GRANDE for that.  And I guess, thanks to THE QUIET MAN for RIO GRANDE.

If you’ve yet to see RIO GRANDE be sure to tune in to TCM on July 29th at 8 pm est. The network is airing it as part of its tribute to Star of the Month Maureen O’Hara.

RIO GRANDE gallery – publicity stills and behind the scenes:

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This is my entry to The John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed.  Be sure to visit both host sites for insights and reviews of all things John Ford.


28 thoughts

  1. THIRTY-TWO DAYS?! No way!

    I had no idea Ford hated directing love scenes. You would never know it!

    Wonderful review, Aurora. I’ll keep it in mind the next time I see “Rio Grande”.

  2. “I am not unauthorized. I am Trooper Jefferson Yorke’s mother.” – Around our place “Rio Grande” is more quoted than “Casablanca” or “Star Wars”.

    I’ll fight anybody who says there’s too much music in this movie. Are you with me?

  3. If Ford saw “Rio Grande” as just a job, it proves what a great film director the man was. “Rio Grande” is one of the most enjoyable of all of Ford’s pictures, and one of the most romantic as well.

  4. Great post Aurora! I haven’t seen Yellow Ribbon, but I did prefer this to Fort Apache; the wonderful attention to detail and the sense of camaraderie get me every time. I do love the backstory about how it was made too, imagine being able to direct something so accomplished just to get the film you really wanted to make!

  5. I just think it’s funny that you would pick RIO GRANDE and I would pick THE QUIET MAN considering the connection of these 2 films. (And I’m guessing you might have picked THE QUIET MAN otherwise, if you didn’t already write a very lovely piece on TQM in the past, which I adored.) Aurora- fabulous write-up on this Ford classic with the Duke & Maureen sizzling the screen in their pairing debut!

  6. Awesome review Aurora. This is my fav of the Calvary. Trilogy. The comedy aspects with Mc Laglen and Chill Wills and Carey Jr. aling with the music make this a all around better movie of the three. I read Carey and enjoyed all his Ford / Wayne stories. A love scene with Maureen OHara,,, what a bucket list that would make. Thanks Aurora…

  7. Check out the bio on Peter Ortiz who plays the eye-patched Capt. St. Jacques. A war hero first with the Foreign Legion, then the Marines, and the OSS, being twice captured by and escaping both times from the Germans . “one of the most decorated Marine officers of World War II” -Wiki. He also spoke ten languages, “At least two Hollywood films were based upon his personal exploits, 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and Operation Secret (1952)”

  8. I must have been 12 when I first saw this movie. I loved it. I saw she wore a yellow ribbon and Fort apache later, but my favorite is Rio Grande. The story is better.

  9. I liked the fact that Ken Curtis (Festus of Gunsmoke) was the lead singer for the Sons of the Pioneers. He was a better singer than I would have expected growing up watching the old grizzly looking guy on Gunsmoke

  10. I noticed recently that two lines by Ben Johnson have been omitted from “Rio Grande”. The line “Heap big injun signs” (when getting water and a can of beans from troopers Boone and York) and “Watch out injun!” (when helping trooper York escape from 3 Apache Indians chasing York) were no longer broadcast on TV. My guess is that even old movies now need to be politically correct.

  11. I wonder if Sheridan’s horse, tied outside Yorke’s tent, is a tribute to the valiant horse Winchester (Rienzi), who now resides in the Smithsonian. The way in which John Wayne looks at the horse makes me think so, or perhaps it is just the General’s livery (saddle blanket w/stars), that got his attention.

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