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Rio Grande (Blu-ray Review)

13 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson.

John Ford’s 1948 Fort Apache has a lot of robust humor that tickles my fancy (its “volunteers … for the manure pile” is a line I never forget whenever embarking on some cruddy household chore). But overall, 1950’s Rio Grande is the loosey-goosiest of the director’s famed Cavalry trilogy, which began with Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Not only is there a lot of screen time devoted to Sgt. Victor McLaglen’s intake of spirits for non-medicinal reasons, but the Sons of the Pioneers and even others in the cast always seem to be taking the movie into “time-out” mode — musical breaks that may not go down all that well with Ford detractors. Of course, as Civil War buff and featured player Harry Carey Jr. points out in the Leonard Maltin making-of featurette this Olive release carries over from the old DVD version of Rio Grande, Civil War vets on both sides really did launch into song — a lot — as an antidote to the horrors they’d seen.

War memories inform a lot of the story here, starting with the fact that, under orders, Union Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) once burned a Southern plantation that belonged to the family of his wife (Maureen O’Hara) — the kind of thing that would have gotten you slapped with a mental-cruelty rap during divorce proceedings had it occurred in the subsequent century. Yorke and the Mrs. never got divorced but are still on the supreme outs when their now-grown son (The Yearling’s Claude Jarman Jr., after he began to shave) ends up under his old man’s border command after flunking out of West Point due to math (I empathize). This is the first time (of five) that Wayne co-starred with the actress who turned out to be the best of his leading ladies, and it’s striking how often the Wayne-O’Hara characters were put out with each other over long stretches in these rich screen collaborations.

Ford didn’t actually intend to make a trilogy, and Rio Grande’s very existence was a close call. The director couldn’t get anyone to make his dream project The Quiet Man (a thought doubly chilling when you figure that Wayne’s same-year HUAC camp fest at Warners — Big Jim McLain — probably was a lock to get bankrolled in those days). Republic Pictures’ chief Herbert J. Yates didn’t want to put up the money, either — but said he would if Wayne, Ford and O’Hara would first do a black-and-white Western. Yates, listed as 5-foot-4 on IMDb.com, always fascinated me — in part he helped drive his studio into the ground by casting his poor wife (Vera Ralston) into DOA money losers for years. I also had a great high school/college chum whose father was good friends with a frequent Republic star from the ’50s — and after visiting the set once, he (a doctor) described Yates as “the kind of guy who’d walk into an otherwise empty soundstage that had nothing but a folding chair on it — and then trip over the folding chair.” I don’t know how accurate this assessment was, but Ford, Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were none too crazy about Yates — usually over money (and, in Ford’s case, probably over matters of polish and taste). But the Ford-Republic association actually worked out splendidly in terms of history: Rio Grande was both an auteur work and a commercial hit; The Quiet Man a bigger critical/commercial hit with Oscar prestige; and The Sun Shines Bright is one of the most personal of all Ford’s films and the one that, on occasion, he called his personal favorite.

In Rio Grande, which is by no means a Ford toss-off, Wayne plays the same Cavalry officer he played in Fort Apache (though in that one, he had the rank of captain). The two films offer remarkable contrast and certainly more evidence that Wayne was underrated as an actor. He was only two years older here than in the earlier picture but seems, appropriately, far more world-weary and like a guy who has had a lot kicked out of him (and never more than in the film’s unexpected final scene following a rescue of children who’ve been abducted by Apaches). One thing I noticed during the multiple times I saw this movie as a child and early adolescence: Ford puts Wayne up on the screen two or three times here with seriously mussed-up hair (or, perhaps at this stage of the actor’s career, mussed-up toupee). No vanity (or Vitalis) this time around.

Olive’s is a solid Blu-ray job, threading the needle between too much grain and not enough. It’s now also apparent how much rear-screen projection was utilized — though this is a case where the process is noticeable but not debilitating. Republic gave the movie a healthy budget, but I don’t think it was ever the production that Apache and Yellow Ribbon were (the latter winning the Oscar for color cinematography). Bert Glennon, who shot a slew of Ford films, was behind the camera, and the poetic majesty commences about two seconds after the Republic Pictures eagle shows its logo mug in the opening credits. The Maltin documentary is mellow — especially now that interview participants Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr. and Michael Wayne are deceased — with Carey noting something I hadn’t realized. Describing Moab, Utah, as a kind of mini-Monument Valley, he points out that this picture and the same year’s Wagon Master were shot there and not the more familiar location. That Ford double-header brings to mind what a good year for Westerns 1950 was: Winchester ’73, The Furies and Devil’s Doorway from Anthony Mann; Henry King’s The Gunfighter and what am I overlooking? Hell, even Bells of Coronado and Trail of Robin Hood are kind of up there in the Roy Rogers oeuvre.

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