The Duke and the Cavalry

John Wayne made four movies with John Ford using the U.S. Cavalry as their theme. The first three, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande used the Indian Fighting Cavalry to tell the story. The fourth, The Horse Soldiers, told the story of the Civil War Cavalry.

The first three movies were based on stories written by James Warner Bella, which were excerpted in the Saturday Evening Post. The Horse Soldiers was based on the real life exploits of Col.

Benjamin Gearson’s raid into the Deep South during the Vicksburg Campaign, during the  There is no doubt that these four movies were entertaining. As a matter of fact, they were John Wayne at his best. Who can forget the image of Wayne standing up to Henry Fonda’s Col. Thursday, when Wayne finds out that Thursday tricked him into arranging a meeting with Cochise, and afterward, He covers up Thursday’s incompetence for the good of the service?

Or, In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; a movie that, in my opinion, was the best western ever made and a movie for which Duke should have won an Academy Award. That he wasn’t even nominated for it, was a crime. Wayne’s performance was so impressive that Gen. Douglass MacArthur told Wayne that he wore a Cavalry uniform “better than any man alive”. John Ford gave Wayne a cake with one single candle on it that signified Wayne’s coming out as an actor and until the day he died, Duke said that Yellow Ribbon was his best performance.

Rio Grande introduced us to Maureen O’Hara as Wayne’s estranged wife looking to get their son out of the Cavalry. Though not as good as the previous two, Rio Grande had its moments. As good as these movies were they wouldn’t have been the same without the likes of Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., and the rest of the John Ford Stock Company.

Nine years after Rio Grande, Wayne and Ford teamed up with William Holden in The Horse Soldiers. Gone was most of the Stock Company but it still was a solid, entertaining movie. The scene in that picture where Duke tells Connie Towers why he hates doctors and how he lost his wife was one of the best performances of his career. If you look closely you can see spit flying into Connie’s face as he finishes his speech. It was that intense.

As stated before, these movies were some of Ford and Wayne’s best works, but historically, that’s another story. Ford took great liberties with the history in these movies. For example, the uniforms that the Cavalry wore in the first three were not accurate for their time period. The three movies took place in the 1870’s. Suspenders were not introduced until the late 1880’s and ‘90’s. The hats were not the dirty, white slouch hats worn in these movies. When on campaign, soldiers wore whatever was comfortable to them. Plaid shirts, straw hats, canvas reinforced jeans were what most soldiers used. Even the officers wore what made them comfortable. Wayne’s buckskin jacket in Yellow Ribbon was accurate if you look at Custer’s 7th Cavalry where he and most of his officers wore buckskin at Little Big Horn.

Far be it for me to criticize these movies. Ford was a story teller and these movies started my life-long love of Wayne and the U.S. Cavalry. As I grew up and took an interest in that time period, I realized the hardships those men went through. The truth of the matter is that “Only a cold page in the history books marked their passing, but wherever they rode and whatever they fought for, that place soon became the United States.” This quote was lifted from the final scene in Yellow Ribbon.

So remember; enjoy these movies for what they are, great entertainment. And also remember that “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


  1. Adam DeFrancesco says:

    He also did direct with Duke a brief stint in “How the west Was Won”. Also about the Calvary during the civil war right after the battle of Shilo

  2. Phyllis says:

    There never has been or ever will be an actor who could even think of being him.John Wayne is and was THE AMERICAN HERO. He always will be.

  3. Mike Nolan says:

    John Wayne continues to be an iconic figure even today for his portrayal of these figures that become etched in our souls. We are lucky to have these films available to show future generations why the American Military is still the envy of the world.

    Kudos to the author here for showing us his heartfelt feelings of a true America Hero.

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