Screengrab asks what makes an American classic

Screen Grab

Richard Lutz scours the TV listings for the film of the week.

John Wayne, love him or hate him, and John Ford (ditto) had quite a run of westerns to their credit – including Rio Grande (Thur; Film4, 16.20).

It’s one of a trio of Wayne/Ford movies (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and also Fort Apache) that formed a post-war perception of the West – the tough landscape, the hero, the quest to protect a better future in a young country with a widening horizon.

120px-Rio_Grande_(1950)_trailer_1Ford went for this big time, but he is hard to pigeonhole. Sometimes he swerved ultra-patriotic, as in the unquestioning right of settlers to crowbar anyone else out of their way. Later in life he actively subverted this myth by asking the American public to question why the indigenous Sioux or Navaho tribes were stripped of nationhood and their lands.

He used Wayne in a good handful of his cowboy films, starting in 1939 with Stagecoach. And Mr Marion Morrison (for that is The Duke’s given name) became for Ford an icon of the western model.

Rio Grande is Wayne’s finest role. Now, you don’t link The Duke with subtlety. He had a fine way with roles within his limited range and in playing Union officer Kirby Yorke he tackles the roles of fatherhood, husband, action hero and hard nosed ideologue in the saddle.

120px-Monument_Valley_in_SepiaFord used the Utah locations (plus his beloved Monument Valley) to encompass the actors and to show just how small they were in the American Southwest. What Yorke goes through with his screen wife Maureen O’Hara and his screen son (played by Claude Jarman) is always played out against this big, yawning, empty landscape. It is impressive.

His Lt Col Yorke is on the Rio Grande Mexican border trying to stem Apache raids but family troubles make life complex. He is simply a monochromatic stand-tall type of guy but with feet of clay as he deals with household problems.

You might say his role could be summed up as  “…a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do… even if his heart is troubled…”

Ford’s crew of supporting actors abound in this cavalry action movie: Ben Johnson (many say the finest horseman to grace the screen), Harry Carey, J Carrol Naish and the larger than life Victor McLaglen as Yorke’s comic alter ego Sgt Quincannon.

Cowboy tunes break up the plot from The Sons of the Pioneers, with one Leonard Slye as lead singer. Later he changed his name to Roy Rogers and turned to TV to make a fortune.

Wayne always said this 1950 film was a metaphor for the Korean War. Others contrast it with the contemporary High Noon, in which Gary Copper is faced with a different dilemma: his fellow Americans shirk from confrontation instead of facing it down and leave the hero alone to deal with evil.