John Ford’s ‘7th cavalry trilogy’ feels very different today to the way in which it would have appeared to audiences in 1950. We are now conscious of the colonial/imperial underpinning of American policy towards indigenous peoples. But as with slavery, we shouldn’t forget the ‘Indian Wars’ and the films that presented them while at the same time encouraging more films by and about contemporary Native Americans. Ford’s trilogy was released between 1948 and 1950. The films came at a particular moment in Ford’s career. They all featured John Wayne in the lead role and at the time Ford is said to have described them as ‘potboilers’ designed primarily to make money for his independent production company, Argosy Pictures. Ford had (re-)started the company with producer Merian C. Cooper in 1947 with the Mexican picture, The Fugitive. That film lost money so Ford needed a reliable earner. He made the cavalry films, one per year from 1948 to 1950 (a period which also saw two other Westerns and a ‘war comedy’, Ford was a busy man.) The first two cavalry pictures, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), were released through RKO but Rio Grande was produced by Argosy as part of a deal with Republic, the previously disparaged ‘poverty row’ studio which at the end of the 1940s would strike out to make bigger budget pictures. The disparagement was unfair. Republic helped to make stars of John Wayne and the ‘Singing Cowboys’, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The ‘mini-major’ began a policy of making a few significantly bigger budget films with ‘name directors’ including Fritz Lang as well as Ford. Rio Grande was distributed by Republic and it did well on release. Republic then cleaned up on another part of their deal with Ford when they released The Quiet Man in 1952 – the film that brought Ford is fourth best picture Oscar. The three lead actors of Rio Grande are also the three leads of The Quiet Man.
The term ‘trilogy’ is used loosely here. Each film stands independently. The three films have two things that they each share, Wayne as lead actor and an original story by James Warner Bellah. They also share some other actors and even a couple of characters who have similar names, but the main reason that they go together is that the basis for each story concerns a cavalry troop at a remote outpost during the ‘Indian Wars’ in the 1870s and 1880s. Rio Grande is the third picture in terms of release, but the second in terms of the age of the Wayne character and the historical setting. Like Fort Apache (1948) – which you may wish to read first on this blog – Rio Grande is in black and white and the Wayne character is called Kirby York. The second film in the trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), features Wayne as Captain Brittles, a lesser rank for a much older man and the film is photographed in Technicolor. In addition, the three films have thematic and generic differences. I note IMDb terms Rio Grande a Western and a Romance. It is significant that the Wayne character is married and his estranged wife is played by Maureen O’Hara. This means that the romantic interest in the other two films, based on the antics of young officers and the daughters of older officers, is replaced by an adult relationship. There are other differences that we will note later.
Rio Grande sees Wayne’s Lt. Colonel Kirby York in command of a post close to the Mexican border in Texas. The setting is some three years later than the events depicted in Fort Apache which ended with York’s promotion. Now he has orders to arrest ‘renegade’ Apache warriors who have broken out of confinement on reservations and attacked settlers or soldiers, but he is not allowed to pursue the renegades across the river into Mexico. The narrative begins with the return of York and his men after a mission in which he has arrested a small group of Apache. General Phil Sheridan, his commander on the Civil War campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, has come to visit. The two men reminisce about the Civil War, dating the films narrative’s events as 15 years after that campaign, i.e. 1879. Sheridan now has complete control of the Army west of the Mississippi. He wants to pursue the Apache into Mexico despite US foreign policy. Soon after this meeting Yorke finds himself facing two new challenges. First, his son ‘Jeff’, whom he hasn’t seen since the boy’s infancy, appears as a new recruit. The young man has failed his exams at West Point and has immediately enlisted as a trooper, lying about his age. A little later, the young man’s mother, York’s estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara) will appear. We will also learn that the reason for the couples split was that during the Shenandoah campaign, York burned down her family home, when Jeff was still a babe in arms. Such is the tragedy of the Civil War (the major issue of freeing slaves doesn’t figure in Rio Grande).
In several ways Rio Grande is a conventional Indian Wars narrative. The Apache bands have come together to attack the cavalry camp (which doesn’t appear to be enclosed). York’s men will then pursue the Apache and rout them, but not before the women and children have been put in danger and need to be rescued. The York family will be reconciled and a third narrative strand, concerned with the presence of ex-Confederate soldiers in the US Cavalry, will also be resolved.
For many years, critics and theorists treated the cavalry trilogy simply as a commercial venture in which Western ‘action’ was mixed with subplots that involved both stories about younger soldiers and possible romances and older men with experience of the Civil War contemplating the final days of their careers. In some ways the films are ‘Western melodramas’ and as such they appealed to broad audiences and generally made money. It’s perhaps not until we can see the films in the context of Ford’s long career that other questions start to arise. Tag Gallagher in his major work on John Ford: The Man and His Films (University of California Press 1986) situates the trilogy in the third part of Ford’s long career which he calls ‘The Age of Myth, 1947-61’. There are few directors anywhere that have a career as long and as successful as Ford. By the time of his early success with the epic The Iron Horse (US 1924) about the the coming of the railways to the West, Ford had already made over 50 films, mostly Westerns running around 60 minutes. Gallagher counts this early work as simply part of his apprenticeship and doesn’t start period 1 until 1927. Period 2 from 1935 to 1947 is given the title ‘The Age of Idealism’ and it is in this period that Ford becomes venerated by critics and wins 3 Oscars for films seen as prestige pictures, often literary adaptations. Between 1939 and 1941 Ford made seven films. Only one of these failed to attract acclaim from the Academy. Ford also won Oscars for his wartime documentaries which he enthusiastically made as a senior figure in the US Naval Reserve. Yet after 1947 when international cinema was experiencing Italian neo-realism and prestige pictures were becoming ‘serious’ again alongside the commercial mode of filmmaking we now know as ‘film noir‘ with its seeming commentary on the aftermath of war, why did Ford turn away and plunge himself into films about the Indian Wars? This is Gallagher’s question and it’s a good one.
Since, I last watched Rio Grande, I’ve been looking at Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford: A Life (St. Martin’s Press 2001). It’s a mammoth book and it has allowed me to correct some mistakes as well as introducing a couple of new ideas. As if in answer to Gallagher, McBride suggests that Ford chose the film for several reasons. He wanted to be sure that the deal with Republic would work, i.e. this first film would be successful and that then the notoriously hard-nosed Republic chief Herbert J. Yates would agree to make Ford’s pet project, The Quiet Man. A popular ‘action film’ was needed. James Warner Bellah was a conservative writer and a former military man. On the two previous cavalry pictures Ford had used Frank Nugent as his scriptwriter. Nugent was a more liberal writer, conscious of attempting to portray Native Americans in a more positive way than was the usual Hollywood convention. Ford and Nugent together would adapt Bellah’s work so that the Native American characters would be represented in at least a more humane way. But this time Ford chose to collaborate with a different scriptwriter. He chose James Kevin McGuinness who had just been fired by MGM for being too blatantly anti-communist. Ford always tended to go with the man ahead of his politics. This was the height of the anti-communist drive in Hollywood. Ford had previously found himself standing against the anti-communists in the industry on the grounds that every filmmaker should have the right to his or her own views. But now he found himself becoming marooned amongst some of the leading figures of the right. There was no Ward Bond on the cast list this time (Bond was a leader of the ‘Motion Picture Alliance for American Ideals’) but Maureen O’Hara was another Republican and a strong-willed character, towards whom Ford was attracted.
It seems that Ford himself was at this point caught up in the anti-communist drive throughout the industry, but also by his own response to the American military situation as the Cold War developed. I don’t know the extent that the international tensions in East Asia were affecting public opinion in the US in early 1950, but I assume that many saw the ‘proxy war’ coming in Korea and the the Korean War officially began around ten days after Rio Grande started shooting. Ford himself would go to Korea in January 1951 to make his navy documentary This is Korea, which I’ve not seen. From reports it appears to have been a very strong anti-communist picture, scripted by McGuinness. But back to Rio Grande, the outcome of the change of writers and the change in Ford’s mood produced a picture which treats the Apache very differently to the way in which the Native Americans of the two earlier films were depicted. Now the Apache are simply blood thirsty renegades who eventually capture a group of children who ironically are being taken away from the fort to a place of safety. The children are taken over the border into Mexico and held in a church building in a small village. York and his men will follow Sheridan’s orders and attack the village to rescue the children. There are none of the attempts to negotiate with the Native Americans that occur in the earlier films and none of the Apache are humanised in any way. In the context of 1950 (the film was released later in the year) the film endorses the decision to send American troops into battle in Korea as part of a United Nations force led by the US. In the context of 1879 it upholds the notorious ‘Monroe Doctrine’ of 1823 which announced American opposition to European colonial intervention in the Americas, but in practice justified any American intervention south of the Mexican border and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
John Ford is a contrary figure in Hollywood history. On this film, the action is undoubtedly concerned with a reactionary ideology, but the other two aspects of the film are much more concerned with community and family and reconciliation and with romance. This narrative is also very personal for Ford. The sensitive and mature romance between Kirby York and his ex-wife Kathleen pre-figures The Quiet Man. It also echoes in some ways Ford’s own marriage in that he his wife Mary was from a family with a strong connection to the Confederacy who had themselves seen their house burnt by Union soldiers under Sherman. Ford had also been responsible for the estrangement of his own son Patrick, who had only recently become involved in Ford’s productions in minor crew roles.
The romance and family narrative threads are also consistent with several of the other Ford films of this period but the innovation here is the extended use of music, including the Sons of the Pioneers, who appear here diegetically as the ‘Regimental Singers’. They arrive to serenade Kathleen as she and Kirby sit down together for dinner. Well-known performers in B-Westerns, Ford used their singing in Wagon Master, also in 1950, and again for the theme song of The Searchers in 1956. There is also another family connection here as Ken Curtis, one of the featured singers, was married to Ford’s daughter Barbara (who had an assistant editor credit on the film). He would also appear in small roles in several later Ford films, most notably in The Searchers. Here he is the lead singer on ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’:
Rio Grande is a well-made film with a disturbing ideology which alienated Ford from the leading critics who had praised his earlier 1940s films. It’s still worth watching though, especially for the family scenes and the performances, including that of Ben Johnson who appeared in four Ford films in this period. Johnson was one of the best horsemen in Hollywood and should have become one of Ford’s stock company but Ford fell out with him for no real reason and Johnson’s career as an actor blossomed elsewhere. The film was photographed by Bert Glennon, a Ford Regular going back to the late 1930s. Rio Grande did make the hoped-for impact at the box office. Here’s the trailer for the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release of a restored print: