By Peter Lenihan
Finding Ford is a biweekly series in which I examine the films of John Ford.
There are, it seems, at least two ways of framing Rio Grande, one of the three Ford features of 1950 (Wagon Master and When Willie Comes Marching Home are the other two). The first (and far more common) way to discuss it is as the final entry in the cavalry trilogy, a series of films starring John Wayne and many members of the Ford stock company that revolved (some would say obsessively) around notions of duty and justice and the (im)possibility of reconciliation. Despite these films’ rejection of classical storytelling technique and traditional methods of audience identification, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache are, at least among Fordians and western aficionados, very kindly looked upon, and have been embraced in a way that Rio Grande, a film no one seems to know what to do with, hasn’t.
It’s not all that hard to see why. Next to Fort Apache, whose tonal complexities and simultaneous celebration and repudiation of the U.S. military is among the most contradictory in the director’s filmography, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which features some of the most poetic color cinematography in the history of cinema, Rio Grande can seem a little, well, slight, and its undeniably low-budget feel only contributes to the sense that the director might be on auto-pilot here. History suggests Ford made it for Republic to help get The Quiet Man off the ground, and the digressive, ramshackle nature of the “plot,” and the familiarity of the characters’ names (protagonists named York, Quinncannon, Sandy and Tyree had all appeared in earlier Ford films) has helped encourage the view that it is something minor.
It’s an understandable position, though one I’m not particularly sympathetic to, partially because Ford at his slightest is often Ford at his most interesting. Take, for example, his employment of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara here. As a director, Ford was never above building films around his stars, and in The Quiet Man and The Wings of Eagles he came close to doing just that, wrapping the disparate narrative strands around their (frayed) relationships in a way that is a lot more familiar, though no less affecting. Here, however, neither actor gets significantly more screen time than Victor McLaglen or Ben Johnson, and its focus on the ensemble, on a social world outside of the “leads,” occasionally makes it seem like those involved are coasting. (Nothing, it must be mentioned, could be farther from the truth, and Wayne gave few performances this tender, or in which he seemed to be so aware of the frustrated pain his face was capable of expressing.) This brings us, I suppose, to the second way we can frame Rio Grande, and the way I think we should—not as the third cavalry picture, but as Wagon Master, Part 2. Released only six months apart, they share Bert Glennon, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., the Sons of the Pioneers and what appears to these eyes to be many of the same Moab locations. From the font of the opening titles to the beautiful, modest cinematography—and it’s worth noting that few of the films Glennon worked on (and he shot everything from The Last Command to Crime Wave) look like this—all this seems to be of a piece, and if the two films hadn’t been made for two different studios one might suspect they were shot concurrently. Given the director’s fondness for Wagon Master (he frequently listed it, along with The Sun Shines Bright and The Fugitive, as the favorite of his own films), it’s not unreasonable to think that Rio Grande may have been an attempt to remake it, to recapture the very specific magic of that film. And even if it isn’t quite its equal, it remains a striking achievement, and one that deserves to be discussed more seriously than it generally has been.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, despite its preoccupation with the ghost of Wayne’s dead wife, opened with the witty repartee of McLaglen and Wayne; Fort Apache, a comedy in which almost everyone dies, openly and humorously mocked the stiffness of Fonda in its first minutes; Wagon Master, a comedy in which almost no one dies, begins with some jokes about Solomon’s wives and the horns hiding under Ward Bond’s hat—Rio Grande doesn’t. Instead, things proceed solemnly—it opens with a battle unseen and all we glimpse is the tired aftermath, the soldier and officers and Native Americans returning exhausted and disappointed, incapable of crossing the Rio Grande, incapable of fighting the fight they believe they should be. In the face of death (and Ford is always thinking of death) all conflict is pointless, but Wayne & co. aren’t even able to recognize that pointlessness, to wage combat of any kind, and the weariness of being able only to face the possibility of pointlessness shows on their faces. No jokes, then, or at least not until McLaglen (who was English, if you can believe it) shows. Instead, movement for the sake of movement, talk for the sake of talk, ritual for the sake of ritual, and already the deep melancholy that pervades so much of the film sets in. Boys, faced to see their fifteen year absent fathers as commanding officers and nothing more, and men, American and Mexican alike knowing what they should do and knowing they can’t—these things are the body of the film, and while for any twenty-first century filmmaker they would be ironies of history, for Ford they’re goddamn tragedies, athough you’d never hear him admit it.
Eventually the jokes come. Most of these revolve around McLaglen and O’Hara—she keeps calling him an arsonist, and he doesn’t know what the word means. Shenandoah, a place first referenced in that opening conversation and resurfacing throughout, is Rio Grande’s ghost (there’s always one in a Ford film), now a farce in long shot but no doubt a tragedy in close-up were we permitted to see it. Wayne, a Northerner and West Point officer, seems to have been ordered to burn down his Southern wife’s plantation, and O’Hara never forgave him, leaving him and raising their son on her own. McLaglen, we later learn, was one of Wayne’s men, and she doesn’t seem to have forgotten that either. And of course his son is transferred to the regiment he commands, and of course his wife shows up—as plot points these are obvious, but Ford needs excuses to get these people and ideas into the same room, and they go down easier on-screen than they do on paper. Nevertheless, the construction is clumsy even for Ford, and the half-assed approach to the film’s plot will no doubt be off-putting for those that go to the movies to see a story well-told.
(A quick aside here: how many great movies are actually great stories? I’d argue there aren’t many, and, even more importantly, that most great stories make for really bad movies. The fact that the directors (Ford, Hawks) who most frequently claimed they were just telling tales, and that were most often cited as embodying a rich tradition of narrative classicism, were such lousy storytellers, and so consistently made movies defined by their lengthy, dramatically unjustifiable digressions, only supports this I think. “Storytelling” is the arena of a Zinnemann, not a Ford.)
And it’s not that this is a significantly more lackadaisical or stubbornly anachronistic film than She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Wagon Master are—but everything here is a bit more transparent, and while Ford would quicken or revise a scene he wasn’t interested in to reshape the trajectory and rhythms of a film, here he doesn’t even bother to finish the scenes he’s bored by, and the radically oscillating tones are almost without parallel among his mature works. There’s a let’sjustshootthisscene spontaneity to it, and when a wagon train is raided out of nowhere by a band of Native Americans, ruthlessly interrupting the subtle, developing sense of social interaction among these frightened people, it’s hard to shake the feeling that in this moment, in this film, right now, anything can happen. Is it inelegant? Of course, but it’s very hard for me (an avowed Fordian, admittedly) to fault a director for making a film that privileges all his bizarre, wildly lyrical idiosyncrasies over the (potentially banal) let’s-get-them-Indians narrative.
And so it goes; incidents happen, many of which I could comment on, many of which I couldn’t. Two moments linger above all others, however, and neither of them have anything to do with tracking shots, gunfights or running horses. The first is a simple shot of Wayne, looking in on his wife helping her son, badly beaten in a fight the night before. Many Ford movies exist through their windows, and having a character look through one at a world that is no longer their own is hardly new. Neither is pointing it out. But there is something embodied in this shot, something Ford and Wayne were able to put into it, that’s unshakeable. Perhaps it’s this–Ford’s movies are filled with outsiders who long to be part of a community, despite their awareness (or ours) that the group itself is a humiliating beast, and that if they were a part of it they’d either hate themselves or be bored. Nevertheless, because Wayne is looking in not on a social order but a family that abandoned him (or, perhaps more accurately, he abandoned), it generates a striking, deeply emotional pitch that cuts through, and states without stating that he ain’t living like he should.
The other moment, and one I cannot really remark on, is this. The Sons of the Pioneers (corny to some, but not to me) sing an unbelieveably beautiful song called “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.” “I will take you back Kathleen to where your heart will feel no pain,” the man sings. Ford cuts to Wayne and O’Hara. And they both seem to have died.