Jean-Marie Straub identified John Ford as the most Brechtian of filmmakers. Case in point is the most brilliant shot in Rio Grande, the final installment of Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. White children, kidnapped by Apaches, are holed up in a small Mexican church; a U.S. Cavalry troop, inside the church, plan on rescuing them. (Because it is south of the Texas border, the operation is illegal.) Cut out of the front door of the church is a Christian cross through which one of the white men, along with the camera and us, peers out and eyes the enemy Apaches, whose activity thus appears conforming to the giant cross-shaped field of vision. In one amazing, thought-provoking shot, therefore, we get an explanation of the enmity between whites and natives: the presumption of racial superiority with which Christianity has invested the European-Americans. All in one shot! This recalls the shot in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) where a cross of sunlight reflected on the wall of a bank office (from a window lattice), with the banker’s back to it as he faces us, standing, ironically exposes his “good Christian” law-and-order posture as hypocritical. (He is about to abscond with bank deposits.) Ford’s combination of cultural Christianity (in his case, Irish Catholicism) and personal atheism allowed him to employ the iconic cross in ironical, analytical and distancing ways.
In Fort Apache (1948), the first film of the trilogy John Wayne played Capt. Kirby York, who eventually assumes command of an Army post upon the death of martinet Lt. Col. Owen Thursday in a massacre suggesting Owen’s kinship with George Armstrong Custer. Here, Wayne plays Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke; the different spelling both links and distinguishes the two characters while in particular suggesting that military command and its responsibilities impress on men a similar disposition. However, the older Yorke possesses a more intricate personality than we initially perceive—one certainly more flexibly humane than Thursday’s, for example. Yorke is older than York, has an estranged wife, Kathleen, and child, whom he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. During the Civil War, fighting for the North, he was ordered to burn down his southern wife’s plantation, generating their estrangement; now their son, Jefferson Yorke, has just become a trooper in his father’s frightfully meager command, and Kathleen has arrived on the scene to undo Jeff’s enlistment and take him back home. But all sorts of reconciliations, explicit and implicit, lie ahead, and the boy remains steadfast and proves his mettle. The U.S. military allows North and South to come together, at least symbolically, in a common mission. A rousing and richly entertaining film (it is the weakest member of the trilogy), it provides what little optimism Ford can muster for what the other two films implied was a doomed “United” States, and Ford’s sincerity in this conclusion is riddled by the fact that he made the film only to secure funding in exchange for his The Quiet Man (1952) in Ireland. To say the least, Rio Grande finds Ford in a relaxed mood except for the continued slaughter of Indians that binds the trilogy, setting the tragic impossibility of some reconciliations against the possibility of others. Indeed, the film opens with a mockery of American union as three different tribes unite against white America.
Wayne is brilliant as Yorke, whose age falls between that of the other Kirby and that of Nathan Brittles. Pay particular attention to Yorke’s introduction to us on horseback; look at the complex expression that Wayne gives him, establishing Yorke’s intense loneliness, pride, determination in duty, removal from bitterness, and something poetic besides: a poignant, irresistible touch of the Quixotic.
“Never apologize, Mister; it’s a sign of weakness,” Nathan Brittles had counseled the young in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Nor does Kirby Yorke apologize—except silently and with all his heart.
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