Rounding off any trilogy is no easy feat for any director, producer or star. Although John Ford’s inadvertent and seemingly accidental triumph through his Cavalry trilogy isn’t connected through the storylines, the characters and expected interactions of the genre are built up in equally vivid and cold ways in previous entries. Fort Apache provided some solid groundwork, building on John Wayne’s forthcoming starring character – Kirby Yorke. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon threw Wayne to one side to focus in on a drab love angle, saved by the supporting characters and Ford’s solid direction. It’s a series of films that have provided somewhat lukewarm ideas, forgettable yet enjoyable in their own right. Rio Grande, the third and final piece of the Cavalry trilogy is perhaps the best of the series, even if it does follow a few of the expected trends and tropes of Ford’s direction.
Following She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), you’d be forgiven for thinking Rio Grande was an attempt to forge a new face for the western with its cast of youthful upstarts. Supporting cast members litter the surroundings, with some potentially recognisable faces in the mixture. Although Claude Jarman Jr. never went on to bigger and better things, his performance as Lieutenant Colonel Yorke’s son, Jefferson, is a highlight. One of the many characters sprinkled throughout that receives more than his fair share of interesting scenes. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. appear alongside Jarman, rounding out a ragtag trio of future potential. Johnson, in particular, is a treat to watch and having recently seen his performance in The Last Picture Show, it’s great to see that at least one of this plucky and hopeful trio did go on to greener pastures.
It’s not only a trio of new faces leading the charge, but the old, reliable cast members of Fort Apache and She also Wore a Yellow Ribbon are as prominent as ever. In some cases, they receive more than their fair share of screen time. Victor McLaglen returns for the third time as a stereotypically plucky Irish-American. Quincannon is a quintessential piece of Ford’s trilogy, often being used as a silver lining in the moral abattoir of military life. He resides as a father figure to our new-found trio of characters, guiding them in his steady, charming manner. McLaglen’s performance is exceptional, I’d expected nothing less. With two films under his belt in more or less the same role, it’s unsurprising that he nails his performance a third time around.
Ford’s direction is something I’ve never really contemplated all that much when previously viewing his work. He seems to be a very by-the-books director from what limited experience I have. There’s no denying his credibility as an efficient director, one that knew how to churn out an engaging story (look no further than his incredible work in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but pioneering camerawork is never at the forefront of his craft. He provides a steady vision to the story, and that’s all it really needs. The pacing at times feels a little off, with jovial banter being abruptly stopped to further various subplots, some far more serious than others. They’re interwoven into the same scene at times, and it makes for a jarring experience. One moment we’re singing along with a troupe of acapella troopers, the next second we’re off for a tense meeting on the Rio Grande river.
As expected, this Eureka touch-up plays host to a crystal-clear touch up of the John Wayne western. Eureka are no stranger to exceptional presentations and brush-ups of older films, and they don’t disappoint with this edition of Rio Grande. A generous abundance of extra features includes commentary tracks galore, a making-of documentary and video essay to dig into after watching the film. The making of documentary offers a few on-set hooks for fans, scattered throughout a comfortable, half-hour documentary.
Rio Grande may not be the best-remembered of John Wayne’s abundance of westerns, but it’s most certainly worth seeking out. Highly recommended for those looking to complete Wayne’s filmography, or those looking for a rich western with recognisable performers and a dependable, traditional storyline. Its charms are abundant, but the straight-laced consistency of the accidental trilogy leaves much room for improvement. Still, it’s not often a Western trilogy can hang its spurs up on a high note, and Rio Grande does that much with relative ease.