Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Three movies don't always add up to a trilogy

When is trilogy not really a trilogy?  

We're all accustomed to trilogies.  We like trilogies.  The Godfather.  Star Wars (one of them, that is).  Indiana Jones.  The list can could go on and on, I suppose, but trilogies usually have a strong series of connecting elements:  Same lead actors, connected story lines, a reasonably coherent beginning, middle and end.  It helps, as in the case of The Godfather, that the source material is so dense that Mario Puzo's novel could have been the basis for a a three movie deal, without bringing the story forward to contemporary times.

So why is John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy" called a trilogy?  Beats me.  

The two common elements in the trio (Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950)) are the presence of John Wayne and the "Ford Stock Company".  All are based on James Warner Bellah short stories and have a common technical advisor.  All three were shot in Monument Valley.  That's really about it.  

So, let's examine the trio in a little more detail.

In Fort Apache, Wayne doesn't get top billing on the screen - that goes to Henry Fonda, cunningly cast against type by Ford as a hard-driving martinet.  Shirley Temple plays Fonda's teen-age daughter. John Agar is cast as the freshly minted graduate of West Point, whose father, played by Ward Bond, is also the (un-named) Regiment's Sergeant Major.  That's part of a major plot point as Fonda, is, in addition to being a raving martinet is also an anti-Irish bigot.  That's no small sin to professional Irishman Ford.  Fonda, of course in fine military tradition, manages to both irritate the daylights out his men, and enrage the local Indians.

After Fonda gets most of his regiment killed off in a needless fight against the Apaches, Wayne takes over the Regiment.  Of course, Agar marries Temple, just like real life.  And everybody remembers Fonda character fondly, probably because he's dead.

Best line:  Fonda to Victor McLaglen at Ye Olde Crooked Indian Agent Trading Poste:  "Sergeant, pour me some Scripture".

In the second installment, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fonda stays dead, Wayne's name has changed from Captain Kirby York to Captain Nathan Brittles.  Temple is gone but Agar stays on and the lovely (and infinitely more talented) Joanne Dru, the pride of Logan, West Virginia takes over for Temple.  Dru had worked with Wayne in Red River, and they obviously enjoy working together.   Dru's brother, incidentally, was Peter Marshall of "Hollywood Squares."

A very young Ben Johnson makes his acting debut as Sergeant Tyree in this one, having been a stunt man in Fort Apache and signed to an acting contract by Ford for his work.  Harry Carey Jr, a long term member of the stock company has a featured role as Agar's rival for Dru's affections.  

As a movie, it's pretty close to vintage Ford.  The plot line centers around the usual elements, crooked Indian agents selling guns to the Indians, with some patented Fordian romantic touches like the former Confederate general (!) serving as a buck private in the Yankee Army.  Ford's touch with the wide angle lens never shows to better effect than a scene where the cavalry are walking the horses as a thunderstorm brews up.  Wayne is surprisingly effective playing a much older man.  I believe he nominated for an Oscar for this one.

A bit top-heavy climax wise, but still a good one.  Best line:  Wayne to Victor McLaglen: "The sun and the moon may change, but the Army knows no seasons."

 The last of the trio, Rio Grande, is probably the weakest.  Wayne is back to being Kirby Yorke, now a Lieutenant Colonel.  The filming is back to black and white.  Agar and Dru are gone, Johnson and Carey stay.  Maureen O'Hara is the Duke's main squeeze, and of course, the usual Indian problems drive the plot.  Claude Jarman, Jr.,  who made it big as a child star in The Yearling makes his adult debut as the Duke and Maureen's son.  Of course, Virginia belle O'Hara is a wee bit irked at the Duke for burning the family manse during "the late unpleasantness".  She forgives him anyway.  Nice going, Mo.  

Still, not a bad outing.  Ford made this one to free up the time and money for The Quiet Man, also starring Wayne and O'Hara.  But he didn't skimp on Rio Grande with a large budget, location shooting and a big name cast.

Best line:  There isn't one.

I'll be back with more on Westerns later.  

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