The Duke’s been dead for almost 36 years, but I’d argue he’s still probably the most recognisable face and name in Westerns. John Ford’s been dead almost a decade longer, and even though I’ve seen very few of his movies, I know he’s responsible for establishing and shaping the Western genre. And their contribution to the Western is pretty well summed up in Rio Grande.
Constantly fighting the Apache, Kirby and his men are in a precarious position when the enemy keeps retreating across the Mexican border after their guerrilla assaults, making them off limits in between sneak attacks. Add to this Kirby’s estranged wife (Maureen O‘Hara) who shows up trying to save their son, and he’s copping it from all directions.
In the Coen Brothers awesome movie Barton Fink, studio head Jack Lipknick (Michael Lerner) is talking to his newly signed screenwriter, Barton Fink (John Turtorro), who he wants to write a wrestling picture. While espousing the creative freedom he’ll give Fink and the originality he wants in return, he without irony gives Fink the rundown on what’s expected from the screenplay…
“Wallace Beery is a wrestler. I wanna know his hopes, his dreams. Naturally, he’ll have to get mixed up with a bad element. And a romantic interest. You know the drill. Romantic interest, or else a young kid. An orphan”.
Watching Rio Grande and thinking back on the only other Ford / Wayne joint I’ve seen, Fort Apache, I feel like they may have had similar notes from the studio…
“The Duke plays a cavalryman. I wanna know his hopes, his dreams. Naturally, he’ll have to fight the heathen red man (‘coz this is the 50s, so it’s not yet racially insensitive for us to say things like that). And a romantic interest. Probably an estranged wife or long lost love. You know the drill. And don’t forget, his second in charge needs to be a drunk Irishman. Nothing makes more effective comic relief than a tippled mick (did I mention it’s the 50s ?)”.
But all the box ticking and by the numbers plotting of Rio Grande never really bothered me. There’s a let’s-put-on-a-show vibe about movies from that era that is infectiously charming. It’s like studios and film makers felt obliged to give their audience a cabaret show amidst their gritty Western. Saddle worn, hard as nails cavalrymen? Better make sure they get to sing a few songs. What about horse stunts that have nothing to do with reality? No worries, we’ll shoehorn in a reason for a few dudes to ride two horses at once, while standing up!
It’s clichéd, it’s hammy, it’s predictable and it’s on the nose. But I’ll be buggered if I wasn’t entertained but Rio Grande. Westerns might have become grittier since, but 60 or 70 years ago, no acting and directing pair did it better than John Wayne and John Ford.