John Wayne's America: Rio Grande
by Brianna Keilar


In Rio Grande, Kathleen Yorke, played by Maureen O’Hara, arrives by wagon at Fort Starke, a United State Cavalry camp located on the Rio Grande. She encounters an officer who, oblivious to her identity as the wife of the commanding officer of the fort, informs her that unauthorized ladies are not allowed at the post. "I am not unauthorized," retorts Kathleen, "I have a pass signed by General Sheridan." Kathleen climbs down off the wagon, brushing the dust from her clothes, unaware that Colonel Yorke, played by John Wayne, has seen her arrival and is approaching her. When she lifts her head to look around, Kathleen is caught unaware in her husband’s gaze. Her facial expression, conveying her annoyance with the officer, melts into a longing gaze. She bites her lip and touches her chest delicately with her hand. Kathleen has dropped her guard and when she realizes that her desire for "Kirby," as she calls Yorke, is completely visible she quickly masks her yearning. She reverts back to brushing her clothes, embarrassed about the emotions she displayed when surprised by her husband’s presence.

Rio Grande, directed by John Ford, is set during the high point of the conflict between America and the Native Americans. Colonel Yorke has been frustrated by the assaults of a united ring of Indian tribes who have been raiding the camp and nearby villages. After executing the raids, the Indians return to the Mexico side of the river, where the United States Cavalry is unable to legally pursue them, thus the origin of Yorke’s frustration. The plot is complicated by a new group of recruits who have come to the camp for training; among them is Jefferson Yorke, the son of Colonel Yorke who enlisted after failing out of West Point. The Colonel has not seen his son in fifteen years. At this point, the importance of past events is introduced into Rio Grande. Fifteen years prior, the Colonel had been a commander on the Union side of the Civil War, a war that pitted Yorke, a northerner, against his southern wife, Kathleen (O’Hara). During the march of the Union troops down the Shenandoah Valley, Yorke had to give orders to burn the surrounding crops and structures, among them Bridesdale, his wife’s Southern ancestral estate. This ruined Yorke’s marriage, and prior to Kathleen’s arrival at the camp to retrieve Jeff from the front of the Indian conflict, Yorke has not seen her since the Civil War. Rio Grande details the events following Kathleen’s arrival, challenging Colonel Yorke to salvage his marriage and reunite with his son while enduring the hardship of a campaign against the Indian ring across the Rio Grande.

In the reunion of Kathleen and Kirby, these unguarded emotions expressed by O’Hara are the true emotions of Kathleen. Although she harbors a grudge against Kirby, she is still in love with him. In John Wayne’s America, Garry Wills explains that Kathleen "has come to buy her son’s way out of the Army, and she is willing to ingratiate herself with ‘Kirby.’" Wills contends that she uses seduction as a strategy to achieve her objective. (186-187) In his analysis of Rio Grande, Wills captures the essence of the chemistry and resultant emotional blunders between Kathleen and Kirby; unfortunately, he fails in dissecting the strategy that Kathleen uses in influencing Yorke to dismiss Jeff from duty. Kathleen’s tactic in this battle she wages with Yorke, is not to seduce him but to make him feel guilty for the consequences she suffered in the past as a result of his strict sense of duty. Wills does not examine this approach that persists throughout Rio Grande in O’Hara’s dialogue..

To counter Wills’s analysis of Kathleen’s strategy, it is important to first disprove Wills’s contention that Kathleen tries to seduce Yorke. Contrary to Wills’s analysis, Yorke is the character that tries to initiate a physical reconciliation but Kathleen rebuffs him. When Kathleen haughtily explains to Kirby that she has come to pay one hundred dollars "in Yankee gold" for Jeff’s release, he tells her that the application requires his signature and that he will not sign. "You’ve overlooked several other important details," Yorke explains. "Number one: you’re a fine figure of a woman." Kirby approaches Kathleen, his face an inch from her, his body pressed against her in invitation. Kathleen turns from him. "And number two: you probably haven’t eaten," says a deflated Kirby. John Wayne’s America ignores Kathleen’s rejection of Kirby and the disappointment in his voice in Wills’s judgement of her beguiling motives. Wills also misinterprets the events of a scene in which Kirby returns from patrol after dark, lights his lamp in his tent and is surprised to find his wife, who had been sitting in the dark. As Kathleen rises from the chair, Kirby grabs her and kisses her passionately. Wills explains that "[Kirby] draws away since he knows she is ‘seducing’ him to get her way on their son" but Kirby actually seems to draw away because he is afraid of showing too much emotion. (187) His past attempt at getting close enough to her so that he could kiss her was met with a denial. "[Kathleen] has planned this," says Wills, "but is flustered by her emotional response…which goes beyond her calculation." (187) Wills is correct in his interpretation of her emotional response to the situation, as surprise and enjoyment inundate her face, but not in his comments about her calculation of the event. Kirby is the active initiator of the kiss and Kathleen has hardly been exerting her feminine wiles in the previous days to "seduce" him into kissing her. These scenes make evident that O’Hara does not py Kathleen as the seductress that Wills eludes to in John Wayne’s America but as a proud woman, who is experiencing honest emotions, and is yet unwilling to succumb to the advances of Kirby.

O’Hara succeeds powerfully in showing the emotions of Kathleen, a woman who is still in love with her husband but continues to nurse the wounds he has inflicted on her southern pride. These emotions of longing and love for Kirby persist throughout the movie but are independent of her mission to return home with Jeff. Wills recognizes these emotions and briefly addresses the chemistry between Kathleen and Kirby but must mistake some of this emotional fumbling as Kathleen’s seduction ploy. >From her very arrival at her husband’s camp, Kathleen causes the conscience of Wayne’s character much guilt. After Kathleen collects herself during her encounter with Kirby in the scene of her arrival, she walks with him towards his tent, passing an officer who salutes them as they go by. The officer is Quincannon, a Sergeant Major who carried out Kirby’s order to burn Bridesdale during the Civil War. "I see you still have that arsonist with you," Kathleen says to Kirby. After Kirby accounts for Quincannon’s reluctance in carrying out the order she replies, "Oh, the reluctant arsonist." If Kathleen were trying to charm her way into getting Jeff out of the cavalry, as Wills suggests, her first encounter with Kirby would necessarily be less abrasive. That Kathleen has refused to see Kirby for the fifteen years since the burning of Bridesdale is evidence of her pride. Wills’s analysis of her attempts to sway Kirby go counter to the proud character that O’Hara portrays in Rio Grande. In trying to persuade Kirby to release Jeff, awakening his guilt is the only method she can implement to achieve her goal and still keep her pride intact. Indeed, Kathleen’s quality of pride is analogous to Kirby’s austere sense of duty in that these traits are the root of the conflict between the two characters. The great loss suffered by the South in the Civil War and that her own husband was an instrument of the army that pillaged her homeland into submission weighs heavily on Kathleen’s pride. She is unwilling to suct her pride to any more assault so she chooses to make Kirby ask himself if he can let his sense of duty destroy Jeff, an event which would devastate her immensely more than the destruction of Bridesdale. In the context of O’Hara’s performance as Kathleen, this moral appeal that she tries to make to Kirby is more plausible than the sexual appeal that Wills proposes.

During Kathleen’s first night at the camp, Kirby leaves the tent to find a wagon in which to sleep so she has comfortable quarters in which to sleep. "I am sorry to dispossess you," Kathleen apologizes. "I dispossessed you more forcibly fifteen years ago," Kirby replies, indicating his regret. This response reveals Kirby’s weakness to Kathleen, that of his suffering conscience. This is a significant aspect of Wayne’s character that Wills fails to analyze in John Wayne’s America. After this night, Kathleen continually assaults Kirby’s sense of duty, drawing on the sorrow it has caused her. Making Kirby feel guilt for his actions becomes cemented as her principal tactic. As Kathleen and Kirby take a walk the following day, Kathleen makes another underhanded assault on Kirby’s conscience. "I’m sorry your sense of duty made you destroy two beautiful things: Bridesdale and us." Kirby also apologizes, noting that she rebuilt Bridesdale. "It was easy…required only physical effort," Kathleen says. This comment brings the conversation back to the delicate topic of their ruined marriage by eluding, in this comment, to the effort it would take to restore the relationship. Kathleen is excellent, almost undetectable, at reverting to this subject which causes Kirby great feelings of regret. She notes a vulnerable moment when he avoids talking about their relationship, instead focusing on her successes with Bridesdale. Channeling back to the topic of rebuilding the marriage, she tells Kirby, "It would be a start if you let Jeff go." Kirby refuses, once again, but not with the adamancy with which he had the day before in the tent. Kirby’s resistance is waning but at this point Kathleen has not attempted to romantically ingratiate herself to Kirby. Thus, another agent must be working to soften the strictly principled Colonel Yorke – his conscience. When Kathleen walks off in response, the camera closes in on Wayne, examining the sorrowful gaze with which he watches O’Hara depart. Kathleen knows by Kirby weak refusal that he is slowly losing in the battle over Jeff and she continues with her efforts.

The next evening, Kathleen joins the officers, her husband, and General Sheridan for dinner. The General bestows upon her the honor of making a toast. "To my only rival, the United States Cavalry," Kathleen toasts, eyes fixated on the Colonel. Kirby, before fellow officers and his commanding general, drinks his entire glass of sherry in one gulp, while casting a challenging gaze on Kathleen. This display of resistance on the part of the Colonel is a façade. It is merely a gesture to maintain respect from his peers. Kathleen is already aware of this as she swallows her entire glass in a graceful tilt of her hand, the corners of her mouth upturned. The next day, Colonel Yorke assigns Jeff to the duty of escorting the wagons of women and children that are being evacuated from the camp as a result of an Indian raid. Wills is correct in interpreting Wayne’s motive to "[send] his son with the wagons of women and children, thinking he will be safer guarding them." (188) Kathleen tells Kirby that she loves him for making this decision. While she was unable to influence Kirby to dismiss Jeff, Kathleen effectively pressured him so that he engaged in nepotism, removing Jeff from the harmful situation of defending the fort.

Kathleen really does love Kirby, but this love is independent of her attempt to influence Kirby towards relieving Jeff of duty. Wills’s brief analysis of these intense, sometimes blundering emotions that are evident in the scenes with Kathleen and Kirby is well directed despite his shortcomings in correctly assigning Kathleen’s motives. In ascribing the role of seductress to O’Hara, Wills is sexist. He negates O’Hara’s rich and powerful portrayal of Kathleen’s honest desire for Kirby in various scenes by explaining them as pretense, an instrument by which to achieve Jeff’s dismissal. This analysis aligns Kathleen with the stereotype of the woman who uses sex for power, when in actuality Kathleen uses an intelligent argument to appeal to Kirby’s conscience. In Rio Grande, Kathleen Yorke goes to Fort Starke to retrieve her son by morally appealing to her husband but she experiences emotions for Kirby that she was not expecting. At no point does she try to "seduce" him as Wills suggests. (187) In scenes that he does not deem as moments of seductive influence by O’Hara, Wills does recognize the poignancy of the interactions between Wayne and O’Hara. "When she seems to relent, he must resist, and vice versa, as they grope their way to honest statement under all the fencing they do over their son’s future, their own past, and the peril that surrounds the fort after her arrival," Wills recognizes. (186) This observation of the interplay of Kathleen and Kirby is insightful yet scarce in Wills’s analysis of Rio Grande. The artistry that director, John Ford, created in the subtleties of interaction between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande is the most phenomenal aspect of the film and it is all but ignored in Wills’s John Wayne’s America.

UC Berkeley - Mass Communications 10, Fall 1999
Copyright (C) 1999 Brianna Keilar

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