RIO BRAVO (1959)

  • Director: Howard Hawks
  • Writers: Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, based on the short story by B.H. McCampbell
  • Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell, Claude Akins, Peter Gonzalez Gonzalez, and Estelita Rodriguez
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#68), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#12)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Rio Bravo is often presented as a sort of rejoinder to High Noon, a movie about a sheriff of an Old West town, played by Gary Cooper, who finds out that an outlaw is coming to kill him. He asks everyone in town for help, but no one will, and after a final shoot out he is finally saved by his wife, played by Grace Kelly. For me, it’s a great movie, but for John Wayne, it was offensively unmanly. That High Noon was a thinly veiled critique of McCarthyism probably didn’t help. Several years later, Wayne worked with director Howard Hawks to make another movie about an Old West sheriff who has to defeat an ominous outlaw against overwhelming odds. Except in Rio Bravo, everyone offers to help Wayne’s sheriff, but he won’t accept it. Eventually, he throws a bunch of dynamite at the bad guys and they surrender.

That is all true, but in practice Rio Bravo is a different movie than that description would suggest. For one, Hawks has this effortless command of his medium, using the camera angles, the music, and other things to really enhance the story. The first several minutes of the movie, famously, have no dialogue, and I can entirely picture someone not even noticing (I did, but it took me a while). The other thing about Rio Bravo is that it undercuts that central John Wayne character at least a little, without actually having to take him down a peg. Dean Martin, of all people, co-stars as his deputy who is secretly a great shot but getting over his alcoholism with mixed success. Even more randomly, another singer, Ricky Nelson, is third-billed in this movie, as a young cowboy who throws in with Wayne’s sheriff despite himself. These three, along with an old, cackling rancher played by Walter Brennan, pit themselves against the forces of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), whose brother has been arrested by Wayne for murder.

Rio Bravo was hardly seen as wildly original when it came out, but it has gained in esteem over the years. Howard Hawks has been one of those directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, seen as little more than a popular hitmaker at the time but who has been re-evaluated as artistically valuable decades later. More than that, the movie’s basic structure, of a combo that Roger Ebert described as “a seasoned lawman, a drunk, an old coot, and a kid” holed up against overwhelming odds, has been repeated many times in subsequent films. Hawks himself did it at least twice, in El Dorado and Rio Lobo. John Carpenter, for example, has claimed that Rio Bravo was the biggest single inspiration behind Assault on Precinct 13.

Rio Bravo is also notable for having one of the few John Wayne romances I actually buy, with a lady gambler played by Angie Dickinson. She is sidelined enough from the action that I often felt like the movie ground to a halt for her scenes, but I also have to admit that she’s really good in them. She also brings out other, softer sides of Wayne that we didn’t get to see that much. One story goes that frequent Wayne collaborator John Ford saw the movie and growled, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!” That Dickinson was 27 at the time and Wayne 51 didn’t really enter my mind when I was watching the movie. I’d say it works anyway.

Martin was mid-movie career at the time, and is actually convincing in a more dramatic version of his usual drunk persona. Interestingly, Nelson is also perfectly fine in his role, in the sense that if you didn’t know he was just some handsome actor you wouldn’t know that he was a pop star, though he doesn’t necessarily get that much to do. We don’t hear much about Ricky Nelson today, but was considered a genuine rival of Elvis Presley as a teen rock idol for a few years, and in fact had, I learned today, had 53 (!) career songs on the Billboard Top 100. It seems that studios thought that if movies with Elvis made money, so might movies with Nelson. There’s one particular scene where Nelson sings a song on his guitar and Martin joins in. It’s a very nice scene, though it definitely feels airlifted in from a very different movie. Brennan’s old man joins in on the harmonica, but suffice to say Wayne does not.

But the reason Rio Bravo works, for me, comes down mostly to the way Hawks works with the actors and frames the scenes. He holds the tension even in scenes you might not expect, like when Wayne and Martin walk down the street at night. There’s one scene where Martin holds a line of potential suspects at gunpoint to figure out which one of them is a fleeing gunman, then sees blood dripping down on a beer on the bar and realizes the bad guy’s in the rafters. This all works very well. Certainly it is very much a John Wayne movie, it’s hard for any movie with Wayne at the center of it not to be. But it’s much more a well-rounded and interesting movie than the idea of it as a manly John Wayne showcase would suggest.

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