Rio Grande (1950): John Wayne in Ford’s Epic Western

In John Ford’s epic Western, “Rio Grande,” which is part of a trilogy, John Wayne plays Lt. Colonel Kirby Yorke, a man fully committed to fighting the Indians.

At the film’s start, Yorke returns from an abortive mission aimed at capturing Indians who have crossed over into Mexico. Fighting the enemy has almost become a lost cause, because the U.S. and Mexican governments have agreed not to cross the Rio Grande under the circumstances. The Apache, however, take advantage of the situation: They raid the whites, then escape safely across the border.

This kind of impasse irritates Yorke because the matter is beyond his control–the border sanctuary set-up and the shortage of troops impede his mission to make the place safe for the American setllers. Following a further attack, General Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish) gives Yorke informal permission to cross the border and smoke the Indians out of their hideouts, once and for all.

A breach of international law, Wayne puts his loyalty to Sheridan, his commander from the Civil war, over and above the illegality of the mission. He accepts the plan wholeheartedly, unable to conceal his frustration over the unchecked Indian attacks. Wayne is even willing to risk court martial, though Sheridan promises to handpick the court’s members if it comes to that.

This streak of independence is integral to the John Wayne charismatic heroes, all men living by their personal code of ethics rather than by a set of legal rules. It is interesting to mention that the script initially called for a scene in which Wayne is punished for his illegal action and is sent to London as a military adviser.

However, director Ford thought that it was both anti-climactic and incongruent with the star’s image, and the scene was deleted. Like most of Wayne’s films, this Western also contains a rather straightforward confrontation between the generations, with Wayne again playing both biological and sociological father.

Putting duty before love, during the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel Kirby York followed orders and set fire to the plantation of his wife, Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), for which she has never forgiven him.

Moreover, a tough disciplinarian commander, Wayne does not glamorize the military way of life to his recruits. On the contrary, in his first address, he makes sure to spell out as realistically as possible the hardships of such life.

Later on, Wayne is genuinely disappointed that his trooper son, Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr.), has failed at West Point Academy (a reference to Wayne’s own failure in real-life), and is ashamed that he has to enlist in the army as a recruit. Nonetheless, he tells Jeff, who has been posted to serve under him, “Put out of your mind any romantic ideas that it’s a way of glory. It’s a life of suffering and hardship, an uncompromising devotion to your oath and your duty.”

Characteristically, Yorke tells Jeff that he can expect no special favors, “on the official record you are my son, on this post, you’re just a trooper.” And it is clear that Wayne expects, and in fact will demand more, of his son than of the other recruits, because” he is his son.

Refusing to believe in or even acknowledge failure, he conveys this message authoritatively to his son, “You’ve chosen my way of life. I hope you have the guts to endure it.” However, as in the war movies, Wayne’s toughness is also a facade. He is the father who watches through the hospital’s window how castor oil is administered to Jeff, and he’s also the father who checks his son’s height against his own on the tent’s sides, taking pride in his growth.

As for the romantic subplot, it’s quite routine. Wayne meets his wife after fifteen years of separation, when she comes to the camp to reclaim her son, announcing herself as “trooper Jeff Kirby’s mother.” She wants to buy Jeff’s release, but Wayne refuses to sign the paper, claiming stubbornly, “Here he’ll stay and here he’ll serve.”

O’Hara then talks to Jeff against his father, “He’s a lonely man…a very lonely man,” but Jeff replies, “They say he’s a great soldier.” “What makes soldiers great is hateful to me,” she declares.

When Jeff refuses to leave the post, she is irritated, “You’re stubborn proud, Jeff, just like he is,” but he contradicts her, “Just like you, mother.” O’Hara tries to persuade Wayne but to no avail, “I could say yes very easily, but I owe something to Jeff.”

When the women and children have to be sent to a safer area, however, Wayne relents and assigns Jeff to be one of the escorts, which pleases her, “He’ll hate you for it, Kirby, but I’ll love you for it.”

Jeff breaks through the Indian camp and rides off to bring help, after the women are attacked and some of the children abducted. Trooper Tyree (Ben Johnson) then chooses Jeff as one of the two men to creep into the camp and protect the children during the raid. Later, when Wayne is wounded, Jeff pulls the arrow out, a symbolic ritual, bringing the two men closer, and also serving as a rite of passage, transforming Jeff into a full-fledged man.

By the end of the saga, Wayne endorses his son and admits he outdid him in his toughness. This confirmation, both symbolic and pragmatic, is explicitly stated by Yorke, “You did all right,” and Kathleen, “Our boy did well,” indicating she both understands and accepts her husband and now son’s way of life. It is the father’s role to put his son through the necessary male rituals by which he will become a “real man,” but the mother’s confirmation of her son’s newly-gained status is also important.


Distributed by RKO (Argosy production)
Running time: 105 Minutes


Lt. Col Kirby Yorke (John Wayne)
Mrs. Kathleen Yorke (Maureen O’Hara)
Trooper Tyree (Ben Johnson)
Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr.)
Trooper Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.)
Dr. Wilkins (Chill Wills)
General Philip Sheridan (J. Carrol Naish)
Quincannon (Victor McLaglen)
Deputy Marshal (Grant Withers)


Produced by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper
Directed by John Ford
Screenplay: James Kevin McGuinness, from the magazine story, “Mission With No Record,” by James Warner Bellah
Camera: Archie Stout
Art Director: Frank Hotaling
Editor: Jack Murray
Music: Victor Young