1950's Rio Grande isn't quite the throwaway picture it could have been given the story behind its making - what director John Ford really wanted was to mount his passion project, the technicolor Irish romance drama The Quiet Man, but Republic Pictures put up the funds on the condition that Ford first make a crowd-pleasing Western for them with the same cast - but it's not top-tier Ford either.
The picture begins well enough with a majestic scene showing the return of a US cavalry regiment, after a skirmish with native Americans, to their frontier outpost near the Rio Grande river. Lasting several minutes without any dialog, we see the procession led by Col Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) slowly ride in, dust billowing all around them. The rider's faces are lined with sweat and disappointment. The outpost women look expectantly at the mounted party (and the wounded being brought in on stretchers) to ensure that their beloveds have returned. No words are spoken but much is conveyed about the life of the people in this settlement. The evocative feel and flow of this episode undoubtedly influenced some of the opening shots in Akira Kurosawa's movies. The sombre mood is continued when Kirby's commanding officer Sheridan (J Carrol Naish) laments the limitations placed on the US forces by the government, restricting them to stay within their borders, while the guerilla natives go back and forth between the US and Mexico. This has been taken up by critics as an analogy to the US government's handling of the Korean conflict, which had begun around the same time.
Chafing under restrictions which hamper their tactics, Kirby is a frustrated commander with an inadequate fighting force. A request for an additional 180 men is answered with a supply of 18...and one of those is his own son Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr.), who enlisted as a soldier almost immediately after failing the officer's commission at the military academy in West Point. A conversation between Kirby and Jeff in which they let each other know that no favors will be given or accepted reveals that the father has been away from his family for 15 years. This estrangement was mainly perpetrated by the incident during the American Civil War when Kirby, following Sheridan's scorched earth policy, ordered the razing of the farms and homestead of his Southern origin wife's family, and in the process his relationship.
Thus far we have a strong dramatic picture, boasting finely etched characters, each battling their inner demons. Alas, this is soon lost. In an earlier address, Kirby tells the new recruits, "...each of you will have to do the work of ten men. If you fail, I'll have you spread-eagled on a wagon wheel. If you desert, you'll be found, tracked down and broken into bits." This creates expectations of a frank and harsh depiction of life for the soldiers. But apart from when the natives attack, they appear quite comfortable. We hardly see them do any chores, and the atmosphere is like that of a rather pleasant Boy Scouts camp. Within no time, Jeff makes himself one of the men as they sing inside their tents under starry skies. Then there's Victor McLaglen's comic relief Sergeant, who dispels all notions of the hard-nosed disciplinarian.
Kirby's personal life intrudes further into his domain when wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) turns up unannounced, determined to drag her son back to the safety of an officer's commission. Between Kirby's obsession with duty and Jeff's own stubborn pride, she is not to have an easy time of it, and must stay back till she gets her way. This in turn rekindles the feelings between the couple (at a hosted dinner, she makes a toast "To my only rival, the United States Cavalry."). Rendered in smoldering glances and subtle gestures, the chemistry between the actors is palpable. It's a lovely path for the film, seeing these middle-aged people, not just as parents of a strong-willed adolescent, but as an intensely attached pair who despite their differences, love each other with a passion.
It is what comes to the picture's rescue when its take on the conflict with the natives is the old cliche of soldiers vs savages. Kirby gets his redemption when Sheridan orders him to declare an all-out-attack on the the Injuns, even if it means going over into Mexico ("I want you to cross the Rio Grande, hit the Apache and burn him out.") Unlike Ford's own previous Fort Apache, this film refuses to acknowledge the natives as more than stock villains that deserve to be shot down in the admittedly exciting action sequences. Even children are made part of the propaganda machine (fronted by an irritating cutesy Karolyn Grimes). But if you are willing to excuse its faults it is still acceptable as an emotional romance drama in a military setting.