Review: Rio Grande (1950)

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Rio Grande is the final chapter in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. It is less of a continuous narrative, held together instead through the maintaining of a similar spirit as well as analogous thematic elements and characters. Much of this must be attributed to Ford and Merian C. Cooper who produced the pictures through their Argosy Pictures label. Furthermore, much of the director’s stock company makes a showing as per usual headed by John Wayne as Colonel Kirby Yorke.

While, to some extent, the earlier picture Fort Apache was also about the sometimes prickly marriage between duty and familial obligation, it was all but thrown to the wayside in the end. In other words, the maniacal resolve of Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), as a military leader, took precedence over his relationship with his daughter (Shirley Temple), which in itself was a statement.

However, one could claim Rio Grande is a simpler picture with far less complicated aspirations in its own attempt to examine alienated families. To get a grasp of the scenario, three figures must be brought to the fore.  Colonel Yorke (Wayne) is stationed on the Texas border tasked with defending folks from raids instigated by belligerent Apaches. But such a lifestyle can be difficult on relationships and Yorke has long been estranged from his wife (Maureen O’Hara) who has never quite forgiven him for numerous past grievances in their rocky courtship.

We find out in passing they had a son together though Yorke hasn’t seen the boy for years and he’s surprised to find out his own son flunked out of West Point for failing arithmetic. The next big shock comes with the new class of recruits, requested by Yorke to aid in keeping up defenses against the onslaught of Indian raids.

One of the recruits just happens to be his son Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), who by no decision of his own has managed to wind up at his father’s outpost. From their first reunion, both men make it clear there will be no favoritism or show of kinship. As far as both sides are concerned, it’s duty first and they hardly know each other anyway. There seems little need to start now.

The picture does have some lively idle chatter in the background provided by the ever boisterous and larger-than-life Irish teddy bear Victor McLaglen tasked with getting the new recruits up to snuff. Aside from Trooper Yorke, he is befriended by Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) and southerner Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) who both prove their aptitude in taking on jumps in the manner of the Ancient Romans. Music is also integral to the life of a cavalryman in tents or around campfires, in the form of ballads or down-home toe-tappers. Song follows them everywhere.

But the moment of greatest import arrives with Mrs. Yorke as she pays a call on her husband and comes to fetch her boy. She plans to take him back home with her by buying him out and removing him from the life for good. It’s full of contentious and complicated feelings. But what we realize is there still is a fleeting love between the couple. They are on the receiving end of an after dark serenade from the Sons of the Pioneers and Kathleen notes Kirby has grown more thoughtful with age.

Still, there’s no denying his inherent sense of duty that has left a path of destruction, both physical and relational. After an abrupt nighttime raid, Yorke resolves to send the women and children within the encampment away to safety, except they too get ambushed en route. The children are abducted. He has some choices to make. A countermeasure is now in order to extract the children from the enemy.

It’s very much a concrete objective and yet taken in light of what has already transpired, we can easily see this act of necessitated bravery being tied closely to the roots of family identity. What we are willing to do for our sons and our wives or to make our parents proud? All of these issues come under scrutiny and must be resolved in a tangible way.

When everything is said and done, Wayne and O’Hara together are what does it for me. We leave them grinning from ear-to-ear as O’Hara playfully spins her parasol next to her man, newly reunited. There’s something electric surging between them — that intangible whats-it all the great screen couples were imbued with.

Though smaller scale and relatively compact, Rio Grande is no less a western from John Ford. One might concede Ford was going through the motions as he had compromised and made this picture solely so he could realize his next passion project The Quiet Man (1952) (also starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and Victor McLaglen). As they say, the rest was history.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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“Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” ~ John Wayne as Nathan Brittles

Instigated by one of the cataclysmic massacres of the West, Custer’s Last Stand, the word is sent by telegraph and pony express all across the country. Simultaneously, members of numerous tribes including the Sioux and Cheyenne are on the warpath. They have a new resolve to make war with “The White Man” who has continually lied and cheated them out of their land. It brings deep-seated issues at the core of American’s history to the surface.

However, for what initially appears a heavy drama, Ford’s picture comes off surprisingly light and quite comical in patches. Frank Nugent’s script forges a story about the U.S. Calvary at Fort Stark. Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is counting down the days until his retirement not so much with anticipation; it’s all but inevitable. Because you see, he’s been in the service of his country for a good many years and it’s about time for him to step down.

John Ford gave Duke the part, realizing after Red River (1948), Wayne was not simply a warm body with an imposing presence; he truly was an actor by this point in his career. Resultingly, he makes Ford’s decision to cast him in a slightly more demanding role pay off handsomely. To his credit, he makes a fine showing imbuing the part with a certain world-weariness that comes with age but also immense good humor.

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Victor McLaglen, as the burly First Sergeant Quincannon, calls on his Colonel every morning taking a nip out of the bottle he has conveniently hidden in the other man’s quarters, as they commiserate about their military careers coming to a close.

Meanwhile, the two hot-blooded young men under his command (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) turn foolish in their pursuit of the prettiest (and only) flirt in camp, niece of the commanding officer Allshard, Ms. Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). Brittles observes with mild amusement as they vie for her affection, barking reprimands at them for their undisciplined behavior, while simultaneously stirring them on — noting that she wears a yellow ribbon in her hair denoting a beau. The question remains who she will pick and it becomes one of the film’s running gags as much as it is a source of easy conflict.

Initially, there seems to be little nuance in how the Native Americans are portrayed, prone to indiscriminate violence, yet at least, even for a moment, the film suggests it is not a cultural divide but one defined by generations. Young men are intent on making a name for themselves and finding glory on the battlefield. It is the old man who have gotten past that. They have seen how war ravages the earth and humanity. They are weary of such ordeals.

Nathan Brittles goes to Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) on the eve of his retirement to forge some fragile peace. But his old friend is powerless to do anything so Brittles takes yet another approach to save lives. It’s his one final gift to his men. Mind you, he was not required to take on any of this and yet a man such as Brittles would have nothing less because he cherishes his command and the men who ride beside him. They mean just as much to him as the U.S. Calvary itself has for well nigh 40 years.

What makes all these preceding events genuinely striking is the stunning Technicolor frames. The continuous processions over the plains are breathtaking panoramas with skies as immaculate as the western backgrounds themselves.  The most well-conceived moments come in capturing thunderbolts out on the prairie as Brittles leads his caravan on their mission with their two female cohorts.

In such instances, there’s a scope and grandeur that gives the impression of an intricate painting even more than a film and it’s true Ford and his director of photography purportedly drew inspiration from the works of Frederic Remmington. In this regard — and I’ll try to not overstep my bounds — Winton Hoch’s cinematography stands up to if not surpasses the imagery of The Searchers. Likewise, there are wonderfully decadent period costumes evoking the era nicely but as always John Wayne dons his worn in, one-of-a-kind pride and joy that he would wear until his Rio Bravio (1959) days.

Though relatively forgotten alongside more formidable offerings like The Searchers, Stagecoach, or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon might just be one of Wayne’s most fascinating performances in a Ford picture. Not only is he playing a man 20 years his senior — and doing it with surprising credibility — he makes the old calvary man into a figure with true heart and soul. He’s not too hardened or unfeeling to hold onto lifelong friendships, enjoy a good joke, or grin at the young love that besets the hearts of the men under him. They respect him and he cherishes them in return.

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There are numerous poignant moments as his tenure winds down but one of the finest comes when he gives his beloved troops one final inspection. They surprise him with a gift paid for by all of them — a solid silver watch with a remembrance on it. It’s a token of respect to a man they deeply admire. In a move that can’t help but conjure up George Washington himself, Brittles pulls out his granny glasses to read the inscription and we see yet again this great man of strength was, as we always suspected, a man of a certain sensitivity too. He’s deeply touched.

He rides off, a job well done, but as it so happens the cavalry is not done with him as trusty Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) comes to fetch him one final time. Not by a long shot. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is simultaneously an elegy to those who served and were lost in the line of duty and more specifically to a man who took great pride in his post.

4/5 Stars

Wagon Master (1950)

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“Wagons west are rolling…” – Sons of The Pioneers

Despite being a tighter film, Wagon Train still bears the irrefutable mark of John Ford. Together with producer Meridian C. Cooper, he crafts a piece of work as near to a fully realized articulation of his vision as he probably ever achieved; this made it one of his personal favorites.

Because there is no one to answer to except for himself and if anything, in contrast to his career prior, it’s a freeing proposition. Wagon Train contentedly meanders along ever toward its destination with time enough to stop and visions enough to keep an audience engrossed.

Without John Wayne, the story instead finds able space for other worthy stalwarts of the Ford stock company and in this aspect alone it’s a fine showing. Ben Johnson’s athleticism on horseback is matched by a plain-speaking integrity proving both steady and unperturbed.

The beauty of the casting is the very authenticity of it. He’s the real deal as a one-time rodeo hand, stunt double for the biggest stars like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, and a certified roping champion. He performed all his own stunts in the picture including the well-remembered scene where he weathers a bucking bronco after Joanne Dru dumps bath water out of the rear her wagon spooking his horse. He stayed on for 10 bucks before getting thrown. That was only after a previous take had to be reshot.

Furthermore, Ford gives the other prominent roles to young Harry Carey Jr. who is Johnson’s trail companion and the more spirited of the two. While Travis and Sandy are intent on selling their stock and nothing else, they eventually agree to come aboard as wagon masters for a caravan of Mormons heading out West. The Elder, played by the venerable Ward Bond, is a man of faith who nevertheless has the raw courage and determination to lead his people on their journey. And he has his usual bearing which only blesses the story. In truth, it’s an obvious precursor to the heralded TV western, Wagon Train, also starring Bond for its first few seasons.

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Even as the search for the Promise Land subsists, lead by Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) and the sounding of her horn, it is Bond who has decency enough to stop for those in need. They end up running across a hoochie-coochie show made up of a swacked trio (Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford, and Joanne Dru) who, without any water left, tried to survive off spirits.

Though a group of social outcasts and equally proud, the Elder obliges to help them out even as their own resources are dwindling. Thus, the procession exuberantly races toward the first sign of water. Jumping off horses, dipping their hats in it, taking a nice cool drink for the first time in far too long.

Our two heroes, also begin to call on their lady friends. Travis tries to extend a gentlemanly hand to Denver (Dru), who defiantly rebuffs his advances and simultaneously Sandy starts eyeing a Mormon girl who already has a beau. In another interlude, a fist-fight erupts between the two young men which the Elder handily breaks up, only to wind up with his pants torn to pieces by a feisty dog.

What becomes evident in the stages of this story is how it is never truly about one individual but an entire community. Part of that comes with the absence of a marketable star like John Wayne or Henry Fonda — two regulars in Ford pictures. However, like My Darling Clementine (sans Fonda), there is this sense of the communal nature of civilization. This western on wheels brings together religious pilgrims, medicine show performers, and Navajo Indians who are all able to find a certain amount of common ground.

Dances become something not only proving to be a form of gaiety and lively human interaction; they might very well be a mechanism for how a bit of home is brought to new territories as a means of making them more habitable. It’s a sign of kinship.

Of course, every society has its outside stressors and in this case, the caravan is paid a visit by a band of glowering men led by a crotchety old-timer (Charles Kemper) winged in the arm. It’s a tenuous partnership at best as his “boys,” including James Arness and Hank Worden, are a testy and trigger-happy bunch. Even as he knows how dangerous they are, The Elder agrees to extend the olive branch, while Travis bides his time knowing now isn’t the time to act. Sandy can’t quite fathom this initial passivity but their forbearance is rewarded in the end.

A John Ford gunfight ensues and not unlike its brethren in My Darling Clementine, the exchange of bullets is efficient and to the point; it’s not meant to bear the entire weight of the picture. Instead, Ford settles back into a broader perspective, reinforcing the lyrical quality of his imagery with the vocalization of The Sons of the Pioneers.

I remember them most vividly from my days watching Roy Rogers serials, hearing the group sing their harmonies, and I do miss the throaty vocals of old folk western tunes like “Song of the Wagonmaster” and “Wagon’s West.” Though I hesitate to call Wagon Master, an all-out musical because that would probably give the wrong impression, it is indebted to its music much in the same manner of a High Noon (1952) or a Rio Bravo (1959). You cannot begin to separate the two.

4/5 Stars

3 Godfathers (1948)

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3 Godfathers is a Christmas western if there ever was one and it’s probably the most sensitive picture that John Ford ever made. Anyone familiar with Don Siegel’s short film Star in the Night (1945) might recognize basic similarities with this picture based on the same biblical motif of the three wise men.

Ford honors his dear friend, the late, great Harry Carey even christening him the “Bright Star Of The Early Western Sky” and it’s very true. In fact, the director probably would have never remade the film if Carey had not passed away in 1947. The reason being that he had worked on an earlier version called The Three Godfathers way back in 1916 and the Ford-helmed silent Marked Men (1929). Not satisfied with just that, the director subsequently cast Harry Carey Jr. as The Abilene Kid alongside John Wayne and  Pedro Armendáriz. Although a big star in Mexico by this point, Armendáriz garnered little respect from Ford as you might expect.

The script penned by film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent with Laurence Stallings and Robert Nathan, takes the story of three lawless bank robbers and turns them into modern-day incarnations of the trio of kings from the advent story.

The heady combination of some on-location photography in Death Valley, as well as early Technicolor, gives Ford’s picture an impressive composition even as it can’t quite stand up to his most iconic images. The story as well is a mild even maudlin affair at times but for the very fact that Ford rarely seemed to inch into such territory — or Wayne either for that matter — it does come as somewhat of a treat to behold.

Because here we have three hoodlums, men of ill-repute who have robbed a bank and are on the lamb running for their lives. Ward Bond as the local sheriff — a decent man who also happens to be pretty shrewd — chases after our antiheroes with his hapless deputy (Hank Worden). Though they ride off, he cripples their water supply and looks to cut them off from any of the wells scattered across the territory. The lack of water could prove to be their downfall.

However, the story takes its most obvious turn when they happen upon a wagon. It turns out to not be completely abandoned as a one lies isolated and about ready to give birth to an infant son. Though she is too weak to continue she makes a vow with them that they protect her boy and make sure he grows up healthy and strong.

She doesn’t know their previous actions only the character that they exhibit in front of her and maybe it is even her angelic trust in them that causes each man to agree to this promise. All of the sudden they throw of the shells of their former selves and take on this seemingly virtuous task.

However, that does not make survival any easier living off the drippings of barrel cacti and traipsing across the salt flats with the noonday sun beating down. First, losing their horses in a ferocious maelstrom and with water scarce, they do everything in their power to take care of the child. Reading a baby book on how to look after an infant and bathing and feeding him. His Uncle William sings him “Gather at the River” as a lullaby. And all three men agree their godson will share their three names. Robert Hightower (Wayne) bickers with Pete about using Spanish around the baby. They want him to grow up American.

The Bible passage about finding a donkey to ride into Jerusalem gives some guidance fittingly as the child makes his pilgrimage to the town of New Jerusalem. We know that a miracle just might be in order.

The inevitable happens and Wayne must face off against Bond but what makes that dynamic far more meaningful is the child in their midst. Because Hightower’s care and concern for the child’s well-being reveals a side of him that is the complete antithesis of his outlaw persona. It’s a reflection that he is a redeemable figure and the film strikes a compromise between a really saccharine ending and cold hard reality. While no one will concede that it’s Ford’s best work, it’s nevertheless a fine vehicle for the talent and a thoroughly unique take on yuletide moviemaking.

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Picture Show (1971)

df52d-the_last_picture_show_28movie_poster29Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Sheppard, and Ben Johnson, with director Peter Bogdanovich, the film revolves around young people in a small Texas town during the early 1950s. Although at first glance it seems simple and innocent, there is another side to the town, full of romantic entanglements, fights, and even deaths. Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges) are best friends without any real parents, only each other and some of the town folk. They have a falling out over a girl (Sheppard) and then Sonny sees the girl go off to college while Duane returns shortly only to ship out to Korea. However, Sonny is able to make amends with his friend and they see the last picture show. In the absence of his friends, Sonny is left in need of someone to fill the void. This film is interesting because it is shot with black and white cinematography and it only uses period music. This effectively creates a setting that appears to be very realistic.

4.5/5 Stars