Rio Bravo (1959)

Dir: Howard Hawks – Cast: John Wayne (John T. Chance), Dean Martin (Dude), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Ricky Nelson (Colorado), Walter Brennan (Stumpy), Ward Bond, John Russell, Claude Akins, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Harry Carey Jr. – Music: Dmitri Tiomkin

Rio Bravo usually is interpreted as a riposte to Fred Zinneman’s High Noon. The stories are different, but like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, John Wayne’s character is a lawman under pressure. He has arrested the brother of a wealthy rancher and must now defend himself against the hired guns sent to free the prisoner. But whereas Gary Cooper begs for help and gets none, sheriff John T. Chance does not ask for help, and gets some. Two people offer their assistance: his former deputy, now an alcoholic, and a crippled old timer. A fourth person joins this club of old pals, a young man who is quick on the draw, but has not yet put his abilities into practice. Again Chance doesn’t ask him to join the club, he smoothly walks in, apparently because he simply feels he should do so.

As an ‘answer movie’ to High Noon, Rio Bravo falls short. Apparently Wayne and Hawks couldn't stand the image of a lawman begging for help, but High Noon was not a western about a sheriff, it was a western about townspeople. Not the sheriff was at the center of the narrative, but the townspeople who preferred to look the other way when things became ugly. Rio Bravo is a town western in the sense that it’s largely set in a western town, but it doesn’t focus on the community. It’s above all a movie about friendship and self-respect, about trust and loyalty: all John T. Chance has, is a barfly, a cripple and a greenhorn, but it’s all he needs. That is the 'message' of this movie: Three people you can trust, count more than a dozen that might let you down when things become serious.

This is of course all classical western stuff: the silent, infallible hero, the hero’s fallible friend, the comical sidekick, the ambitious newcomer. What sets Rio Bravo apart, is the rich character study Hawks somehow manages to concoct out of these simple ingredients. Stumpy, the talkative old timer, is far more than the standard comic relief type of character we meet in many a western movie; we gradually find out that he’s a vulnerable old man, who uses his verbosity to prove that he’s still alert, that he can still be of use in a world in which crippled men aren’t wanted. But the best example is Dude, played by Dean Martin. Like the character he plays, Martin had a mighty drinking problem, and Hawks uses this circumstance masterfully. A few scenes with Martin fighting his demons, are a bit painful to watch. Rio Bravo is above all his movie, probably his finest hour as an actor.

Rio Bravo is not perfect, but its imperfection often seems to contribute to its appeal. It is way overlong, but when it's over you feel sorry and would like to watch it again. It is slow-moving, but the slow pace offers you the opportunity get familiar with the various characters. Exactly for this reason, Quentin Tarantino has called it his favorite western along with The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: to him it's a perfect 'hangout movie', a film that gives you the opportunity to really ‘hangout’ with these guys, and become friends with them. Some critics have criticized Hawks for paying too much attention to Angie Dickinson's 'tart with a heart', the gambler Feathers, who falls for sheriff Wayne.

I had forgotten how hot Angie Dickenson was in ’59, so in this aspect her scenes were a nice surprise. They also provide the movie with some very funny moments – Angie reducing the Duke to a harmless teddy bear – and also with a typical Hawksian female character – as Hawks devotee Robin Wood put it: as strong as any man, yet not in the least like one of them. It’s always good to have a strong woman in a western, but Angie's scenes with Duke often feel artificial, a bit out of place. Duke never was a ladies' man and it’s hard to accept that Angie would fall head over heels in love with a man old enough to be her father. It’s sometimes suggested that Hawks, like Hitchcock, had a desperate (and inevitably unanswered) passion for the young actresses in his movies. In Rio Bravo John Wayne is 52 and actually looking older, probably because the movie offers him a lot of screen-time, but gives him not enough to do. There are too many scenes with him walking down the main street, to or from the saloon annex hotel where Angie is staying, and he cannot hide his age with his usual bravura.

Some people prefer El Dorado, Hawks’ first (sort of) remake of Rio Bravo. El Dorado better paced and grittier, but when watching it, I miss Nelson and (especially) Martin, even though he’s replaced by Robert Mitchum. Of the two, Mitchum is no doubt the better actor (Dino's of course the better singer), but he fared best in westerns of moral ambiguity with a dark, sultry atmosphere, and Hawks’ westerns are none of these things. Rio Bravo is not totally unpretentious, but it's essentially a light-hearted movie (note that most characters have 'funny' names: Feathers, Stumpy, Dude, even Chance sounds like a knickname). It was Hawks who said: Ford is better at westerns, but I am better at comedy. The action scenes are few and far between, but once you’ve seen them, they’ll always stay in your mind: the explosive finale, with Dino and Claude Akins having a fistfight in the middle of a shootout, Nelson throwing a Winchester to un unarmed Wayne, and above all this wonderful scene with Martin entering a saloon, looking for a fugitive villain … suddenly dripping blood tells him the man is right above him … Martin turns on his heels, and shoots the man down … That is wonderful. Memories are made of this.

Hawks loved his own movie so much, that he remade it twice (albeit loosely), first as the tough, but slightly less memorable El Dorado, then and as the unmemorable, but perfectly enjoyable Rio Lobo. It also inspired younger film makers, notably John Carpenter, who updated the story to modern day Los Angeles, in Assault on Precinct 13. Sergio Leone was impressed by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, influenced by Mexican folk songs. Ennio Morricone recalled Leone requesting him to write a ‘Dimitri Tiomkin kind of score’ for A Fistful of Dollars. The Italian title of the movie was by the way Un Dollaro di Onore (Onore = honor). Probably just coincidence, but what a nice coincidence.


* Garry Willis, Rio this and Rio that, in: John Wayne’s America, the politics of Celebrity, 1997, New York

* Robin Wood, Rio Bravo, in: Western movies, edited by W.T. Pilkingtn and Don Graham, 1979, University of New Mexico Press

* Rio Bravo (film), Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

* Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, British Film Institute, London, 2006