05 May 2020

Rio Grande and Roman Riding

Rio Grande is the third western that John Ford made about the US Cavalry with John Wayne as one of the stars. Ford made it only because the head of the Republic studio demanded another western before financing the movie Ford really wanted to make, The Quiet Man.

As such, Rio Grande was quickly shot, with even more continuity lapses than usual. (Ford always delivered minimal footage so the studio couldn’t edit his movies into something he didn’t want.) There are a few too many musical numbers, and the central story of a cavalry colonel, the wife he won during the Civil War, and the son he barely knew who becomes one of his recruits gets played out but not deeply explored.

At the same time, Rio Grande works. Shot in the Moab Valley of Utah, its visuals are amazing. Wayne and Maureen O’Hara are strong in their roles, and Ford’s usual cast of supporting players enact their usual parts well. The jokes land. The final action sequence is set up by just a couple of shots in the opening montage. The movie might have been a masterpiece if its makers had put more into it, but it’s as entertaining as it needs to be.

One of the most impressive scenes comes early as a sergeant, played by Victor McLaglen, challenges the new cavalry recruits to do “Roman riding,” standing astride two galloping horses. There’s no reason for this to be in the movie but spectacle. That skill never comes back later in the action, but it looks good on screen. And it looks even better when you realize that the actors—Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., and Claude Jarman, Jr.—performed the Roman riding themselves.

Now I knew Johnson got into the movies as a horseman, supplying horses and then doing stunts before becoming an actor. But Jarman started out as a child star in The Yearling. I had to go back in the video to confirm that yes, there’s one unbroken shot of him vaulting onto two horses, standing, and riding off. So I went hunting for the story behind that sequence.

A few years back, Arthur Arnell posted excerpts from a conversation with Carey on a John Wayne discussion site. Carey recalled his and Johnson’s first conversation with Ford about the movie:
The old man sat there for a while, and finally said, “You guys know how to Roman ride?”

I said, “No, sir,” and Ben said, “No, sir,” and Ford said, “You’re going to have to learn it; we’re going to have Roman riding!”

We knew what it was, and Ben being real careful said, “Well, Mr. Ford, how long before we have to know how to do it?”

And he said, “A month.” So Ben looked at me and I looked at him and we both thought, “Oh, s**t!”
The two actors started training. At first it was so difficult that after riding sessions they “had to go to a nearby town to visit a physiotherapist,” Arnell reported. But after three weeks they could show off their new skill to the director.

Ford was pleased. In fact, Carey recalled, “I’d never seen the old b******d so happy.” And he decided, a week before filming, that Claude Jarman should also ride that way.

Jarman was only fifteen years old at the time, though tall enough to play a West Point dropout. According to Carey:
Now he looked like he barely rode at all, but he came out, croupered those horses, jumped up on my team, and went down the road no practice.
So basically the scene in the movie played out just like real life.
Ben said, “Well, Jesus Christ.” We wanted to crawl under a board. And old man Ford said, “Well, Jesus, it took you guys three weeks, for Christ’s sake.”

Ben said, “He’s never been hurt before, Mr Ford.”

Ford said, “What?” He made you repeat everything.

“Well, he’s never been mashed up or hurt, he’s not afraid.”

“You’re goddam right, he’s not afraid!”

So Claude rode, too. He used my team since we only had two. It was unusual for people who had critical parts in a movie to do that kind of stunt, but Ford would do it. We shot that Roman riding sequence right in the middle of the picture, and we were even out Roman riding every morning on location.
Carey added that Jarman, unlike his adult castmates, “felt no ill effects whatever” from standing on horses.

A man named William T. Brooks, who had been on extra on Rio Grande, added some moviemaking details on that discussion site:
They were not attached to the horses, but they did have on black rubber sole tennis shoes. But if you look close the next time that you watch the film, you might see that the horses have “trace straps” holding them together so they would not go in different directions.
And the final word from Jarman’s autobiography:
They seemed as surprised as I was when I stood up without a hitch on my first try! Ben even seemed a little chagrined that I took to trick-riding so easily and was heard to mutter, “The reason that kid did it so easy is that his feet are so goddamned big they just wrapped around the horse’s back!”

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