The last entry in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy is often considered a bit of a weak sister next to the formal beauties of FORT APACHE/’48 and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON/’49. But its looser, less structured form holds different pleasures and it’s probably more helpful to think of it as companion piece to its immediate predecessor, the amiable WAGON MASTER/’50, another under-appreciated Ford Western.* John Wayne, still long, lean & handsome working under his own thinning hair, is the Army Colonel trying to put down an Indian revolt near the Mexican border. His son (a very fine 16-yr-old Claude Jarman) has joined the regiment after flunking out of West Point, and now Wayne’s estranged wife, a perfectly cast Maureen O’Hara, shows up to try and buy their son out of his enlistment. While the action simmers on the back burner, the film spends most of its time & energy on horsemanship, comic army routines and a heckuva lot of singing. (Four-part harmony from the Sons of the Pioneers.) Sometimes Ford can feel as if he’s treading water with these asides, dawdling for his own amusement, but here, the gags, stunts & songs take on the natural rhythm of army life. (The neatly-paced comic stuff is LOL funny.) And the same unforced quality holds when the action kicks in for the last act. With a surprisingly strong emotional pull from the double family dynamic of home life & army life, it makes for a lovely film. (NOTE: South of the Border, the Rio Grande River is called Rio Bravo, as per our poster. No connection with the John Wayne/Howard Hawks film from 1959.)
DOUBLE-BILL: *Ben Johnson, back in support here and offering some breathtaking horsemanship nearly matched by Harry Carey, Jr and a game Claude Jarman, got a rare leading role in WAGON MASTER.