While 1950 is often seen, perhaps too conveniently, as a watershed year for the western genre, thanks to Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73, its use as a line of demarcation is far less certain in the broader context of John Ford’s career, whether he was making westerns or working in any other genre. One of the pillars of his legacy, even as it is observed today, the cavalry picture, was already established by 1948’s Fort Apache, confirmed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the following year, and completed with his 1950 Rio Grande.
The third film is usually considered the least of the trilogy, but only because the other two films stand so tall, troubling even a casual attempt to whittle Ford’s career down to fewer than a dozen masterpieces. The presentation of themes in Rio Grande is perhaps a little diffuse, the script a little too reliant on busy expedients, neither settling for bucolic quietude nor indulging in the mighty iconography that powers such titanic works as The Searchers or The Sun Shines Bright. The comic relief here, often anathema to all but the most devoted Fordians, isn’t even rank enough, as it would be in Donovan’s Reef, to derail the proceedings. It’s not quite appropriate to call a film that’s this rich and beautiful “mediocre,” but the qualities in other Ford movies that seem like prickly edges are smoothed over in Rio Grande.
While it may lack for superlatives, or outstanding moments, it’s still a film of great warmth and humor. It was, as not-quite-substantiated industry lore tells it, the stamp Ford needed on his passport for Republic to let him make The Quiet Man, which studio president Herbert Yates predicted would be a flop, and if Ford’s heart doesn’t seem to own all of it, its occasionally ramshackle quality has its own infectious charm, as it did in his service comedy from the same year, When Willie Comes Marching Home. This is loosely the tale of a U.S. Army colonel, Kirby Yorke (John Wayne), whose son, Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr., former wet-eyed child star of The Yearling), a buck private who washed out of West Point, has just been assigned to his far-flung regiment. As the narrative ambles from point to point, eventually coming to rest on a climactic battle scene that shows off Ford’s customary sure hand with such spectacles, we’re treated to an ornery romance between the colonel and his estranged wife, Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), songs from the Sons of the Pioneers, and one of the most concentrated mixtures of Ford’s favorite actors this side of The Long Voyage Home.
Just as he had favorite actors and favorite composers, John Ford also preferred to work with a few cinematographers, and for Rio Grande he reunited with Bert Glennon, who hadn't shot for the director since 1939's Drums Along the Mohawk. Not unlike his work for the iconic Stagecoach, Glennon's shadows in night scenes have a Murnau-like expressionism, and you'd be hard-pressed to catch him using day-for-night. Olive Films' HD transfer (picture-boxed for the titles, then expanded when the film proper begins) uses nearly immaculate materials, but seems a little soupy around the middle range of the grayscale. As usual for its older catalog titles, Olive includes one sound option, a reasonably robust DTS mono track. No complaints in that department.
You might find it strange that the Blu-ray disc has a making-of featurette for High Noon, but fear not: It's merely mislabeled. The featurette is really about John Ford's film, and (in the same mold as the one for Fred Zinnemann's Oscar-winning classic) it's a showcase of recollections and commentary from some of the film's surviving principals, as well as a few film historians, including host Leonard Maltin.
Olive Films' barebones platter for the often overlooked third part of Ford's cavalry trilogy is an essential buy for fans of the director.