John Wayne as Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke in Rio Grande (1950)

Roman Racing at the Rio Grande

Some of my favourite John Wayne movies came early on in his career, after he had turned from a B-movie star into a genuine mainstream movie star but before you could accuse him of doing the same thing, basically playing to his legendary persona in every movie. As such "Rio Grande" from 1950 is one of my favourite John Wayne movies because whilst there are elements of the classic John Wayne persona the storyline which embraces themes of loyalty, honour, pride and family allow him to find more emotion in his character. Plus "Rio Grande" not only sees him working with director John Ford but alongside Maureen O'Hara who bring the best out of each other.

After days of riding the Mexican border Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (John Wayne - She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) returns to discover that his estranged son, Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.), who he's not seen in 15 years has flunked out of West Point but has enlisted and is stationed at his outpost with 18 other young soldiers for training. But not only does he find his son but Kirby also discovers his estranged wife, Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara - Miracle on 34th Street), has turned up determined to pay for their son's release from service, something which goes against Kirby's morals despite no really knowing his son. But his estrange family is not the only problems which concern Kirby as with Indians nearby father and son must face even greater danger.

Maureen O'Hara and Claude Jarman Jr. in Rio Grande (1950)

Whilst "Rio Grande" is a western covering a Calvary fort on the Mexican border it is much more than just gunfights and action. There are themes going on in "Rio Grande" with John Ford exploring elements of family alongside loyalty, honour and pride as we watch the story of Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke and his estranged wife Kathleen and their son Jefferson brought together at a training outpost. This may sound like it makes "Rio Grande" a bit airy fairy especially as the storyline also embraces romance but by no means is "Rio Grande" any less of a movie. In fact watching the turmoil which Kirby feels for both his estranged son and wife makes for great entertainment.

And what is nice is with all this turmoil you are not 100% sure how things will end up. Early on you see Kirby restraining himself from running to the aid of his son when he falls from a horse and you wonder whether that tough military facade will melt to eventually bring them closer together. At the same time you are also aware that the feelings between Kirby and Kathleen are still strong despite having been apart since the start of the war and so you wonder whether things can sort themselves out as Kathleen obviously dislikes not only her son being in the Cavalry but also her husband. It makes for great entertainment because you are kept on your toes by what will happen.

Plus as an aside there are sub-stories with a young trainee wanted for suspect manslaughter and a history between Kathleen and Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon over a previous arson attempt. All of this makes "Rio Grande" much more than just another western in fact you could say it's a thinking man's western because the emphasis of the storyline is on the various themes rather than the action.

But you also have to say that the action is by no means a let down with some high paced horse chasing scenes and gun fighting. Although the scene which sees a couple of trainee Calvary men Roman riding horses is breathtaking. Considering "Rio Grande" is now over 60 years old the action is as spectacular as anything you will see now and with many of the actors doing their own stunts it is even more impressive.

But what I really like about "Rio Grande" is that it shows John Wayne as an actor rather than someone who just trades on his legendary persona. The opening scene which sees him riding his troop back into the Fort is brilliant purely for one thing. We can see that he is tired, beaten by days on horseback but as he rides in he sits up straight displaying the pride and honour he has for his position. And there are other moments such as the restraint his character shows in not running to the aid of his fallen son which shows John Wayne as a much greater actor than he is often given credit for.

But it is also the pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara which makes all this exploration of themes so brilliant. There is such great chemistry and trust between Wayne and O'Hara that they are believable as estranged husband and wife delivering in equal measures romance as well as antagonism. In particular Maureen O'Hara delivers the simmering anger of Kathleen as she wants her husband to release their son from the Calvary.

Aside from the great pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara there are countless great performances in "Rio Grande" including those from Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. and Claude Jarman Jr. as three of the trainees and a wonderful comedic turn from Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon.

What this all boils down to is that "Rio Grande" really is a Grande western. The storyline alone is pretty special with its exploration of themes and coupled with some great action scenes it captures your attention early on and doesn't let go. But it is also the performances of all the cast in particular those of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara which makes it so entertaining. If you think westerns are just about gunfights and mysterious lone riders than watching "Rio Grande" will show you that there is much more to a good western and also much more to John Wayne.