Many John Wayne fans continue to love and support Rio Grande, even though its reception was a bit lukewarm. Nevertheless, the actor once revealed that it actually held an important political statement to those behind-the-scenes. Wayne explained how Rio Grande actually followed through on military strategy that he wished took place.
Rio Grande follows Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne), who is the head of a cavalry post in Texas. His mission is to protect the settlers against Apaches, who are launching attacks from the Mexican side of the river. However, things take a sudden turn into the unexpected when Yorke’s 16-year-old son, Jeff (Claude Jarman Jr.), shows up. The lieutenant colonel hasn’t seen his son since he was a baby, but now he’s one of the new recruits.
Yorke continues to have run-ins with Jeff, who he treats extra harshly compared to his peers. The situation becomes increasingly complicated when the lieutenant colonel’s estranged wife, Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), shows up to pick up her son to return home. Their family drama begins to bleed its way into Yorke’s existing hardships involving the cavalry post.
According to Michael Munn’s John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, Rio Grande was more than a “regular cavalry” Western flick. It actually had a political statement that wasn’t revealed for quite some time after its release. Wayne himself told Munn that the movie is about North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.
“Rio Grande was written by James McGuiness as a metaphor for the invasion of South Korea by North Korean Communist forces,” Wayne said. “In Rio Grande it’s the Apaches who come across the border to make their attacks, and then go back over the border where the cavalry weren’t supposed to go. But Lieutenant Colonel York, the part I played, knew he had to lead his men across the border to save the lives of innocents.”
Wayne continued: “In Korea, the Communists were making their raids into South Korea and then going back to the North. Well, I felt that our forces should have gone after them, and that’s what York did in Rio Grande—and it was the right thing to do.”
Wayne, O’Hara, and filmmaker John Ford didn’t initially want to make Rio Grande. However, they did want to make The Quiet Man, which would become known as one of the trio’s greatest works. All of the major studios turned them down at the time because they felt that it would certainly bomb at the box office. Nevertheless, they had to make the Western to secure the funding for their quieter, more intimate romantic drama.
Rio Grande gave Wayne and O’Hara the opportunity to test their on-screen chemistry, which was magnetic. Audiences continue to swoon over the emotions that they were able to generate. This would only further translate into The Quiet Man.
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