Rio Grande (1950) is a John Ford western starring John Wayne as Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, a post-Civil War Indian fighter. Family values are in motion throughout as he is joined by his son, Jefferson, who flunks out of West Point, and Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), the missus, who arrives by coach. As Yorke tells his son, the life of a soldier on the frontier is one of sacrifice and duty. It will never be a pretty picture. This turns out to be the case as contingents of hostile Indians, mostly Apache, raid from across the river. When not engaged in battle, troops makes the best of it. There is a scene, for instance, during which new recruits show off their mastery of Roman riding. In another, Marquis of Queensbury rules settle a score. And there are other segments as well that highlight the Sons of the Pioneers, singers and strummers, who appear frequently in Ford productions.
In the trivia section of imdb.com, mention is made of The Quiet Man (1952), another Ford film starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, set in Ireland. The two films were also made at Republic Pictures, an active studio that never quite gained parity with the majors. For the student of film and film enthusiast, this is an interesting subject, anything but trivial. Wayne and O’Hara were a screen couple, and although the former is not known for being romantic, this turns out to be a significant element in Rio Grande. The song, “I’ll take you home, Kathleen,” is the film’s leitmotif.
Ford, who made Monument Valley famous as a location, makes ample use of Moab, though the setting in the narration has to do with the Mexican-American border defined by the river called, alternately, Bravo and Grande. In addition to a western, Rio Grande is also a border film, dealing with the line in the sand, both geographically and ideologically contentious. With the Civil War over but still very much in mind, further defiance must be dealt with. Kathleen is a useful member of the fort in which the Cavalry abides, but she is stubbornly against the soldierly mystique that might rob her of her son’s life. As usual, there is just no alternative. Indians attack all the time and lie in ambush at every opportunity, hidden by the heartless rock of a vast, mountainous desert.
Not surprisingly, Indian images are fairly standard, which is to say, on the whole, negative. The viewer is apt never to quite grasp who they are. They are mostly stick figures, vilified by the fact that they constantly aim deadly arrows at the blue uniforms that represent the USA. Still, Ford respectfully documents some of their chanting, at odds, culturally, with the smooth harmonies of the Regimental Musicians, as well as the bugler’s shrill call to arms. It is difficult not to think of the entire southwest as a literal battlefield. Historically, ethnic struggles were more the rule than not. And that river, neatly snaking its way east and west, a familiar jagged line on maps, seems eternally incapable of separating warring parties into distinct, exclusive sides.