Rio Grande (1950)

Dir. John Ford. Starring John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Maureen O’Hara

In The Battle of Midway, John Ford appears to have won a bet he made with someone that he couldn’t fit every patriotic American song into a movie. Only a few minutes of the documentary are really about the battle itself; no small part of it features “the natives of Midway” (they’re albatrosses, ha ha) and at the end, men have a funeral for some lost comrades before dumping their coffins into the Pacific from PT boats. The music over those late scenes is “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and the film ends with the Japanese casualties being marked off to the tune of “Wild Blue Yonder.” It was thus awfully interesting to me that Ford chooses to end Rio Grande with “Dixie,” which is used as the backing track to the parade of soldiers of Kirby Yorke’s (Wayne) regiment. Meanwhile, Kathleen (O’Hara), a Virginian, twirls her parasol with a sort of unladylike glee. It’s been fourteen years since Lincoln was assassinated, but his words about “Dixie” hang over this Old West scene: “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I ever heard,” he said, and referring to the recent surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, he added that the Union had “fairly captured” the tune as well. In much the same way, Yorke has recaptured his own rebel by the film’s end, who has been holding a (well-earned) grudge for the past fifteen years, and playing “Dixie” (or “Wild Blue Yonder,” maybe) is the send-off salve that Ford uses to relieve the tension of battle and strife. It’s okay, he seems to be saying. We lost a few guys, but we won for country and things are on the upswing.

That repeated musical choice is the kind made by someone who needs to see a meaningful purpose in war deaths, military and civilian alike. Maybe that’s why the regimental singers (portrayed by the Sons of the Pioneers) are around so often. They alternately serenade Mrs. Yorke and General Sheridan, sing out while on the march, and croon over a campfire. In the scene with Sheridan, Ford has one of those characteristically incredible shots where he squeezes better than a dozen people into a single frame without losing the faces in the scene. By my count, no fewer than seventeen people are in one shot where the singers sing and the officers listen – and there’s still space for a fence, a tent, and the night sky. The singers give us a backdoor look into camp life, where only one poker game is ever seen (and it’s played by an unfriendly marshal killing time), no “unauthorized women” are allowed on the base, and even brawls are staged under Queensberry rules. Coupled with Yorke’s aggressive opening speech to his new recruits (and especially to his estranged son), the sense of organization and military purity is built up; these men take no undue pleasure. A group of boys, teenagers – the same age as the boys who went to fight the Nazis – sit around a fire singing about “San Antone.” Rio Grande is not much for speeches, but the speeches there are tend to follow the theme of duty, of fulfilling oaths and keeping to one’s word. It’s hard to imagine that these clean-cut sons of guns have much need of any speech to remind them of what they owe.

The repeated presence of the Sons of the Pioneers, which at first seems intrusive and through sheer repetition forces itself into being part of the movie, is part of what makes Rio Grande stand out. On its surface it’s a cowboys and Indians movie without cowboys and, for the amount of stress they lend to the film, very few Indians. Mostly the Native Americans in the film swoop down upon a wagon train or a military base with great celerity, get what they want, and get out. Their horses do not slow and when they are shot from their horses they have the decency to stay down. No Native American even speaks in this movie; the sounds they make are boiled down to the ethereal singing one associates with the genre. There are Navajos, interestingly, who work with the troopers and provide valuable information and support, but they are as mute as their Apache enemies. (In keeping with our World War II theme, Ford’s nod to Navajos feels like a way of noticing – but not humanizing or excessively valorizing – the African-American troops who helped win that war.) The cowboys are replaced with soldiers in the U.S. cavalry, of whom only a few, like Yorke or Quincannon (Victor McLaglen), seem old enough to remember the great war which preceded these lightning skirmishes on the Mexican border. Yorke and Quincannon served under Phil Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish) in the Shenandoah campaign of 1864, which brought purposeful devastation to personal property on a scale previously unheard of in American warfare. (Rio Grande is presumably set in Texas. Sheridan once said that if he owned both Texas and Hell, he would rent Texas and live in Hell, which is maybe the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.) What Sherman is famous for doing in Georgia and South Carolina, Sheridan is remembered for doing in northwest Virginia. The film slowly reveals bits and pieces of what Yorke and Quincannon did under orders: they burned down Mrs. Yorke’s family home. Kathleen kept her son, the weightily named Jefferson (Claude Jarman, Jr.), and Kirby Yorke went off to fight Indians.

Although Wayne is more classically interesting in Red River – he’s so mean, y’all! – I found him more arresting here because he talks and acts like a man who has been zapped with a Fatigue Ray. Wayne off a horse is often laconic, but in this movie he seems genuinely tired. Ford uses the canvas of tents like a scrim; the sunlight still comes through, but it’s been diffused heavily, creating shadows and darkness on his face when he speaks to his son for the first time in fifteen years, or when he politely reconnects with his wife. The mustache, which I had not previously seen on Wayne before, is like a midlife crisis for his face. He rarely raises his voice, not even to give commands to his troops while in the field. Yorke is louder than necessary with his son at their first meeting and louder than necessary with his new recruits at their first meeting; he’s also louder than usual when he’s trying to scare off his officers so he can win his wife’s affection back, but that’s done for the humor rather than the authority. It’s not hard to imagine that he’s been like this ever since he had Bridesdale lit up; in a choice between personal duty and marital affection, he chose duty. In a choice between country and wife, he chose country. And in a choice between doing what would have earned him the praise of many and the praise of one, he chose the many. There’s a crack in this duty-first American soldier loyal to his own individuality; given the regrets he has about burning down his wife’s plantation, and about the obvious consequences which stem from the action, his endless chatter about being true to one’s word is clearly built up not from some intrinsic sense of morality but from the pressure of his soldiering life, of his adherence to the chain of command, or perhaps from the fear of reprimand from a superior or the low murmur of denigrating rumor among his peers and subordinates. The fact of the matter is that the burning of Bridesdale was preordained, and that Yorke is fortune’s fool, not duty’s herald. Maybe that’s why he helps the Texan Travis Tyree (Johnson) as much as he does, recognizing that it’s a man of his son’s generation who might have a chance to outrun the inevitable. Tyree has a sordid little past; he killed a Yankee who was making unwanted advances on his sister and has thus given her a way to marry the man she loves and go out to California with him. Tyree escapes the marshal once even after he’s been caught, ducking out while the marshal is getting Yorke to sign the appropriate paperwork. He steals Yorke’s horse and hightails it. After winning a commendation for bravery in his role saving many children from their Apache captors, the marshal sees him; Yorke rapidly grants him a weeklong furlough as Tyree bails on Sheridan’s horse. It’s alternately funny and absorbing, and Johnson in an early film role is one of the best parts of the movie. (One assumes that they got stuntmen to do most of his riding for him, but even cursory research shows that Johnson was a sensational horseman.) One sees more in Yorke than in Tyree through all of this, though. Approached by the inevitable – arrest, trial, imprisonment – Yorke manages to forgive and enable at least one man a moment further. He gives the next generation at least a chance to break free from the forces which made him do something he cannot take back.

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