Rio Grande was the last in John Ford’s (Donovan’s Reef) “Cavalry Trilogy” (the films are linked by shared casts, director, themes, setting and close together release dates and not characters or continuity) . As in the previous films, John Wayne (Rio Lobo) takes the lead, this time as Colonel Kirby York, who commands a U.S. cavalry unit near the Rio Grande and the Mexican border. York served under General Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish, Dr. Renault’s Secret) during the Civil War, and continues to serve under him, now fighting the Apaches, lead by Natchez. The film opens with York having captured some of Natchez’s men, which means an attempt to break them out will be coming soon.
York’s about to have more personal problems, however, as he finds out his son Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr., who gained fame as a child actor in The Yearling) dropped out of West Point after failing math, entered the Army as an enlisted man-and is now among York’s 18 green recruits. York last saw his son 15 years earlier, during the war, when York burned down his own wife Kathleen’s (Maureen O’Hara, Big Jake) plantation on Sheridan’s orders. Kathleen never forgave Kirby nor his favored Sergeant, Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLagen, Gunga Din), who was the one who set the fires. Kirby intends to make Jeff work twice as hard as the other recruits, but it is hard for him to conceal his pride when Jeff proves up to the challenge. The trouble really begins when 19th Century helicopter mom Kathleen arrives at the camp to try to persuade Kirby to let Jeff out of his contract and out of the service. Kirby and Jeff want none of this, but Kirby and Kathleen take the time to rekindle their romance and put the past behind them. Kirby’s new men also include Trooper Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson, Terror Train), an excellent horseman and brave soldier who is wanted in Texas on a charge of manslaughter, and Trooper “Sandy” Boone (Harry Carey Jr., Cherry 2000) another good horseman that gives Quincannon the run around every chance he can get with a hayseed act.
When Natchez’s men attack the camp and bust out the prisoners, York goes off in pursuit-but wins back some of Kathleen’s affection by posting Jeff with the men protecting the wagon train of women and children moving to another, safer fort. They ambush the wagon train and it’s up to Jeff and Tyree to get word to York-and, later, to sneak into Natchez’s camp to free the children that Natchez’s men kidnap. Can they get to the children in time? Can they hold off Natchez’s men long enough for the rest of the unit to arrive? Will Kirby and Kathleen reunite?
In many ways this is the smallest scale of the Cavalry Trilogy, most likely because Ford made it for Republic Pictures so that they would, in turn, finance The Quiet Man. While The Quiet Man eventually proved an enormous success, Republic Pictures saw a romantic drama set in Ireland with Wayne and O’Hara as the leads as a gamble but considered another Ford cavalry Western a guaranteed hit. The film is shot in black and white and not in color like the two earlier films, and it focuses more on the domestic troubles of Wayne’s York than on the bigger themes of the earlier films. While the action is quite well mounted (there’s the usual beautiful Monument Valley scenery and some wonderful horse riding and racing wagons sequences) it’s mostly secondary to the domestic story. Unlike in Fort Apache, where we see why the Indians are revolting and that they are worthy, dangerous opponents, here Natchez and his men are faceless enemies that yell a lot, miss nearly every shot, and get easily slaughtered. This hurts the film , as there’s not even a hint of ambiguity and not much more suspense.
On the plus side we’re at least spared (for the most part) McLagen’s drunk Irishman act and Ford’s always awkward “young second string actor (yes, I’m looking at you John Agar) romances a starlet” subplots in favor of Wayne and O’Hara, who have some chemistry together, with a back story that lends some dramatic weight. Ben Johnson’s subplot is fun and fits his persona well, and Harry Carrey Jr.’s comedic turn is actually funny, unlike most of Ford’s usual attempts. J. Carroll Naish, who is these days mostly known for his more embarrassing roles in monster movies and serials is surprisingly good as Sheridan as are Wayne and O’Hara. Ford integrates the music of The Sons of the Pioneers into the film quite well but the music feels somewhat anachronistic. The film is worth seeing for Ford fans but those who find Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans in this period deplorable will find plenty wrong here, and rightfully so-even at this point in his career Ford was capable of a more balanced depiction.