Saturday, May 14, 2005

A Fight in the Desert

Today, I watched John Ford's classic "Rio Grande."

A band of soldiers rescues some kids from a church in the desert, sneaking past the hostage-taker Apaches as they dance while singing to a hypnotic drumbeat. It's a drumbeat that ratchets up the movie's tension considerably.

The little girl rings the church bell. The small party of troops fire their rifles through a crucifix-shaped slit in the front door of the church, dropping advancing native warriors on the steps to the church. This is powerful imagery. Seeing the cross as a portal of lethal fire is startling, to say the least. Rescuing children also evokes powerful emotions; thus, it is a righteous fire that issues from the holy place.

The Army commander (played, of course, by The Duke, Mr. John Wayne) is nearby on a ridge in the desert, leading a column of troops on horseback. They hear the gunfire and the tolling bell. The Duke sits bolt upright in his saddle, and in that unmistakable bawling-bull voice, orders: "BUGLER, SOUND THE CHARGE." He grabs his hat off of his head and waves the troops toward the town.

The brilliant John Ford uses his camera to show us, from the bell tower's vantage point, the cavalry column dramatically galloping toward us at the town center, to the entrance of the church where the battle rages. The troops have arrived to relieve the beleaguered rescue party.

A ferocious battle is waged. The girl rings the bell throughout. Is this John Ford's clever use of another symbol in the lexicon of American idealism — the Liberty Bell? Remember how Toby Keith used a tolling bell with tremendous effect in his patriotic song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"?

The Duke takes an arrow in his right torso.

At last the Apaches are quelled. The Duke's son, a private, performs the grisly task of removing the arrow.

The Duke rides on. In the closing frames, his arm is trussed up, and he is smiling with an admiring woman by his side.

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