Dec 16, 2020

On Olive Films Signature Blu-ray: Ford, Wayne, and O'Hara United for the First Time in Rio Grande (1950)

Rio Grande (1950) marks an interesting point in the careers of both director John Ford and star John Wayne. It was a time when the men were maturing into their later careers, where they would both try variations on their well-established images. It’s the last film of Ford’s loosely arranged cavalry trilogy (including Fort Apache [1948] and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949]). It wasn’t a work of great consequence for Ford, and he felt the cavalry milieu was played out, but he couldn’t help lending his magic to even a tale as well-worn as this one. In a new features-packed Olive Signature Blu-ray release of the film, I had the opportunity to go a little deeper into the production of the film and appreciate its complexities. 

This was the first film of the legendary five film screen partnership between Wayne and Maureen O’Hara (they’d both already signed for The Quiet Man [1952], but hadn’t started production), and from the beginning their chemistry was profound. They play an estranged husband and wife: Wayne is Captain Kirby, who leads his men at an isolated cavalry outpost, O’Hara comes to him after a long separation, because her son (Claude Jarman Jr.) has enlisted after failing to make the grade in school and she worries for his safety. 

The family drama is the heart of the film, while the action comes from the threatened attack of hostile Apaches who force the soldiers to attempt to escort the women and children at the base to a safer location. Even understanding the different mindset at the time the film was made, I still struggle with the way the Native people here are portrayed as faceless and vicious. That said, my perception of these characters was forever changed when I interviewed former child actress Karolyn Grimes several years ago (she’s the one that says “Uncle Timmy” and rings the church bell). She remembered being fascinated by how indigenous actors loved playing cards and drinking soda pop between takes. 

As a sort of seasoning to these sequences, there are also several cowboy-tinged musical interludes by the Sons of Pioneers group, beautiful location shooting in the Moab, Utah setting in the Professor Valley, and an astonishing scene of stunt riding featuring Ford regulars Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. The latter is a remarkable sequence in which the men leap up to stand on top of two horses, a foot on each, and ride them chariot style, even clearing a six foot jump (in an interview included in the special features, Johnson is nonchalant about the dangerous stunt, saying he had a great foothold). As a counterbalance to this athletic show stopping, Victor McLaglen is reliably cheerful and crusty as a sergeant who could probably be cut entirely out of the film, but what would a Ford western be without him? 

You can see how the film might have felt simultaneously lacking in story and a little busy at the time of its release, but it’s all done so well and with such remarkable people that it nevertheless stands as a classic. 

One of the most impressive things about Olive Signature releases is the careful curation of disc special features. The company always finds a perfect balance of addressing the elements of a film that need further exploration without overwhelming with too many features or including items that are of little value. There’s a typically satisfying array of offerings included in the Rio Grande release. 

Claude Jarman Jr. is one of the underrated storytellers of old Hollywood, and here in a brief interview he demonstrates his remarkable recall as he shares stories from his career overall and his role as Wayne’s son. Wayne’s real son and business associate Patrick Wayne offers a more personal perspective about his father’s experience on the set, in addition to his own memories about working on location. I was most appreciative to hear industry veteran and New Mexico-born Native Raoul Trujillo’s thoughts on the portrayal of Native Americans in the film; this feature helped me to unpack my still-conflicted feelings about the way they were depicted in this 70-year-old film. Other special features include a retrospective of the music in the film by Marc Wanamaker, a video essay by Tag Gallagher, an essay in the disc’s booklet by Paul Andrew Hutton, a theatrical trailer, and a vintage featurette about the film hosted by a very young Leonard Maltin which is valuable because it features interviews with several of the stars before they passed. 

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a disc for review.

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