There is a certain genre of films that centers on a military outfit: Daily life, new recruits, dangerous assignments and the dynamics between officers and enlisted men. I have seen tons of these movies because they have a certain appeal on boys. Such movies are brimful of all the testosterone qualities and values that you admire and long for growing up as a boy and they never really loose that appeal although as you get older you realize that this is not all fun and maybe even at some fundamental level wrong.
Rio Grande is such a movie. No more and no less.
In this case the setting is the Texan frontier in the late 1870’ies (based on this being 15 years after Shenandoah, an event during the civil war). The military outfit is a regiment of the US Cavalry and the baddies are Indians on the rampage.
John Wayne is Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, the commander of this outfit. He is almost unrecognizable with his moustache and trimmed hair. Only his talk and stance give him away and out course his trademark stubbornness. The outfit has, of course, an older uncle of a sergeant who is part tough, part a lovable teddy (Victor McLaglen), a bunch of merry men, who also happen to be very skilled horsemen and a number minor side characters to give the outfit flavor. I mention all this because this lineup is so classic it is almost cliché. I do not know if it originates from this movie (hardly), but it certainly follows the recipe. We get all the usual camaraderie and some shenanigans before things start getting serious.
The drama follows two tracks. The internal drama is a domestic one. One of the new recruits in the regiment in Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr.). He failed math and dropped out of West Point, but immediately enlisted as a private and ended up in the very regiment of his father. He has something to prove and the Colonel recognizes that and treat him like a soldier rather than a son out of respect for him.
Then Trooper Yorke’s mother and Colonel Yorke’s wife shows up (Maureen O'Hara as Kathleen Yorke). It is pretty clear that this is not a social visit. She want to take Jeff home as it is clearly a mistake to enlist in the army, but when she realizes that both father and son need to give their consent and neither is of a mind to do so she just stays around. Kirby and Kathleen has not seen a lot of each other lately and there is a standing disagreement between them going back 15 years when Kirby as an officer of the Union army was ordered to burn down Kathleens family plantation in Shenandoah. She has never forgiven him that and I suppose it did not help that Kirby is also, and probably foremost, married to the US Cavalry.
The stage is set for a little bit of family drama.
The second track is the fighting between cavalry and Injuns. We never really get a good insight into the conflict. The why’s and how’s are neatly skipped over and what is left is a ragged but deadly band of Injuns who hide out in Mexico and strike deep into Texas wreaking havoc, killing women and kidnapping children. This of course is what the cavalry is for so we get some battle glory with a good chance for young Trooper Yorke to distinguish himself and prove himself a man.
It does sound pretty lame presented like that and plot-wise this is not a very original movie. The execution however is good. Very good even. John Ford loved the frontier and nobody, with the sole exception of John Huston, was able to incorporate the rugged, but beautiful landscape of the south-west like him. This is a movie that needs to be blown up on a big screen. Also John Ford had a thing going with John Wayne that brought out the best in him. Even when the movie sinks hopelessly into syrupy nostalgia they give the Kirby character enough grit to balance the movie. But most of all the movie is entertaining like hell. This is such an easy watch that you hardly notice that a hundred minutes has passed. That does count for something.
On the negative side this is a movie that cannot decide in which direction it wants to go. Is it a comedy or a domestic drama or a military action movie or, most problematic of all, a musical?
For some obscure reason musical intermezzos are peppered across the movie. Usually it breaks the illusion in that annoying musical fashion that just would never happen in reality and that is unfortunately a big annoyance, at least for me. If you want the audience to swallow the story you just cannot do that. It corresponds to having the characters stop up and talk directly to the audience. In that sense I do not really care if the music is good, it is just stupid. Especially since this movie is otherwise decidedly not a musical.
Unfortunately this is all part of the template. Follow a military outfit, throw in a bit of this and a bit of that and garnish with a few songs and the audience is happy.
I also think that, like the quite similar Gunga Din, it has some problems with the parties in the conflict it describes. Things are so much easier when it is simply the good guys versus the bad guys. I am quite sure there are some, Indians of both kinds, who would object to the presentation of them here.
Overall however I cannot deny that I was entertained and that this was a lot of fun and great movie to blow up on a big wall. Sometimes you need a bit of pulp.
Oh, and the family conflict? That becomes a metaphor for the restoration and reconciliation of north and south after the civil war. Pretty neat.