Directed by John Ford
Cast: John Wayne as Col. Kirby Yorke
Maureen O'Hara as Mrs. Kathleen Yorke
Ben Johnson as Trooper Travis Tyree
Claude Jarman Jr. as Trooper Jefferson Yorke
Harry Carey Jr. as Trooper Daniel 'Sandy' Boone
Chill Wills as Dr. Wilkins
J. Carrol Naish as Gen. Sheridan
Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Tim Quincannon
Grant Withers as Deputy Marshall
After serving in the Civil War for the North at great personal cost, Col. Kirby Yorke is in command of a camp of U.S. Cavalry that is assigned to deal with Apache Indians raiding from across the border from Mexico. The assignment is frustrating because the U.S. Troopers cannot follow into Mexico, and can only react when the Apaches attack. Returning from one such encounter in which his troop has taken a number of Apaches prisoner, Yorke learns that his son, Jeff, has failed out of West Point. Shortly thereafter, the camp receives a group of new recruits, which includes Yorke’s son who wants to prove that he can be a good soldier. Yorke takes him aside and informs him that he will not receive any special treatment, which is exactly what Jeff expects.
Later, when a U.S. Marshall comes looking for one of the regiment’s soldiers, Trooper Travis Tyree, accusing him of manslaughter, the other members in the troop hide him. The troop’s loyalty is not ironclad however, and Jeff gets in a fight with another trooper, Heinze, who insults Yorke and his friend Sgt. Maj. Quincannon. When Yorke finds out about the altercation, Jeff doesn’t tell his father that he was defending his honor, and drops the issue, shaking hands with the other soldier and leaving. As if Yorke didn’t have enough on his hands, his estranged wife Kathleen arrives in camp and asks Yorke to relieve Jeff from duty and send him home. Yorke refuses, stating that he doesn’t want to interfere with his son’s decision. Although they haven’t seen each other in years, there is still a strong attraction between the two. During the Civil War, Yorke was ordered to burn down Kathleen ’s family’s plantation. Putting his sense of duty above his family connections, Yorke followed orders and earned the enmity of his wife. Kathleen appears to have forgiven Yorke for his actions, but he still carries a great deal of guilt regarding the ordeal. The next day Quincannon escorts Kathleen to Jeff’s tent, where she asks him to come home. Jeff, like his father, puts his duty before family and refuses. Later that night, seeking to release the prisoners taken by Yorke, the Apaches attack the fort. As Yorke leads the bulk of the troops after the Apaches the U.S. Marshal who has been watching the camp arrests Tyree. Meanwhile as Yorke and his troop pursue the Apaches to the border, he encounters some Mexican soldiers who refuse Col. Yorke’s request for assistance in stopping the Apaches. When Yorke returns to camp, he is greeted by Kathleen , and they discuss their wedding and their son. Kathleen again asks Yorke to allow her to take Jeff home and Yorke declines, stating that Jeff has to learn that when a man gives his word, it means something. Meanwhile, incarcerated at the hospital while recovering from his wounds, Tyree recounts his side of the story. He got involved in an argument with the man he was accused of killing, but he did not kill him. As soon as he sees an opportunity, Tyree escapes, stealing Yorke’s horse.
Yorke knows that the Apaches will attack the fort again soon and orders Jeff to take a unit of troops and escort the women and children at the fort over to nearby Fort Bliss, which provides Kathleen with some relief. Along the way, Apaches attack the wagons carrying the women and children. Jeff rides back to the fort at speed to get his father, but by the time they arrive back at the site of the attack, the Apaches have kidnapped the children. Tyree arrives back at the fort a short time later, and Yorke moves to have him arrested. Tyree pleads with Yorke, stating that he followed the Apaches into Mexico and the children are being held in a church just on the other side of the river . He offers to rescue the children if Yorke lets him go with two soldiers of his choosing. Reluctantly Yorke agrees, even though one of the chosen soldiers is Jeff. Tyree and Jeff infiltrate the church and kill the guards as Yorke stands ready to ride across the Rio Grande. One of the children rings the church bell, which is the signal to Yorke to proceed with his attack on the Apaches. Yorke rides his troops over the Rio Grande to battle the Apaches. During the battle, Yorke is hit in the chest by an Apache arrow. When Jeff rushes to him after the battle is over and the children are safe, Yorke orders Jeff to remove the arrow, and they ride back to the fort to get medical attention. Kathleen is there waiting anxiously for her son and husband to return, and goes with them to the infirmary. Once Yorke is better, Jeff receives a commendation for bravery. Yorke gives Tyree a horse to escape the clutches of the Marshall, who is still after him.
Rio Grande is the third installment of John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy, the other two being Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
The script was adapted from a short story called Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah and appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947.
Ford originally wanted to make The Quiet Man first, but Republic Pictures’ studio president Herbert Yates didn’t like the script for The Quiet Man, and felt it wouldn’t do well. He instead insisted that Ford make Rio Grande first to help pay for The Quiet Man. Little did Yates know that The Quiet Man would become Republic’s biggest moneymaker when it was released in 1952.
On discussing the deal Ford needed to make with Yates to get The Quiet Man made, Maureen O'Hara is quoted in a 1995 article as stating that “Yates read the script and said: 'This is a silly little Irish story and it will never make a penny, but if the same director and the same producer [Merian C. Cooper] make me a film with the same actors-a western to make up the money you are going to lose on this story-I will finance it."
This was the first of five films that Maureen O'Hara made with John Wayne. In addition to Rio Grande, they also did The Quiet Man (1952), The Wings of Eagles, (1957), McClintock (1963) and Big Jake (1971).
The actions of a regiment’s crossing into Mexico to undertake a campaign there is loosely based on the actions of the 4th Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie in 1873.
One of the musicians that serenade Wayne and O'Hara outside their tent is John Ford’s son-in-law, Ken Curtis, who later became known for his role as Festus Haggen on the TV show Gunsmoke.
The characters of Tyree and Quincannon are played by the same actors that played them in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949. However, the characters are older and of a higher rank than we see here, even though Rio Grande came out later.
One of the children in the end of the movie is actually Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s son. This marks his first screen appearance. He would go on to be in several other movies with his father later.
Two stuntmen drowned during filming during the river crossing scene.
On location in Moab, UT, 50 Navajo were recruited from a local reservation to play the Indians. Billy Yellow, one of the Navajo who was shown in close ups, later stated that the Navajo had no idea they were playing Apache.