Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett and
Being a writer, producer, director or actor during the era when westerns were all the craze, a period which lasted an impressive amount of time, could not always have been very easy. With so many of such films flooding the cinemas during the 50s, 60s and into the 70s, conjuring up some remotely original ideas certainly required a sharp witted mind. As is so often the case, movie studios, for good or ill, are consistently keen on beating iron while it is hot, basing new films on old ideas that sold well to the movie going public at large. Giving the public want it wants it smart business, no one would argue against such a point. It can also lead to dullness, lack of ambition, eventual boredom and incur the risk of creative stagnation. Some filmmakers will invariably try to think outside the box, with their ideas not changing the mould of what what makes a genre popular too much, but just dialling some of the ingredients slightly differently to provide something of interest. How much change can one apply to a western starring John Wayne however?
In Rio Bravo, the iconic Wayne stars as, what else, sheriff of a town named John T. Chance, aided by his two deputes, a snappy old timer with a bad leg, Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and a once remarkable shooter who is currently trying to fight his way out of alcoholism, Dude (Dean Martin. For anyone such as myself who had not seen Rio Bravo before but is a fan of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, the character’s name was quite amusing). At the film’s outset, John and Dude successfully make the arrest of renowned criminal Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), whom they quickly toss into the slammer of their modest little office. It is not long before the thug’s more accomplished, entrepreneurial brother Nathan (John Russell) arrives into town with a host hoodlums. Clearly something is up. Help arrives in the unexpected shape of a very young gunslinger named Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson), a rather reserved, modest youth who answers the call to join the force after his mentor and John’s old friend (Ward Bond) is mercilessly gunned down by the enemy. Trying to protect Joe from being rescued by his brother while the U.S. Marshals arrive is already tough enough, but a brilliant distraction, Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a beautiful woman on the run, complicates matters even further once she take a liking to sheriff Chance.
There is a lot about Rio Bravo which stays true to the traditions of the western genre. After all, with John Wayne in the lead role, there is little manoeuvring room for a director who would hope to change the stakes or the tone of a John Wayne film. In fact, it feels safe to say that such a director would not even be hired for the job. In Howard Hawks movie goers were getting a storyteller who had already made a name for himself in the very same genre. So many of his films had up until then already been declared masterpieces, so what could he possibly bring that was new? The truth is, Rio Bravo did not need a whole lot of shaking up. What deviations exist are only slight, with some emphasis being put on some character traits explored only infrequently in these movies, a love interest for an actor who was not exactly known for being the most romantically inclined leading man, and a setting conducive to some small scale and delightful skirmishes as opposed to grand scale trailblazing along any majestic plains. Ironically enough, the opening scene has the title and credit cards play against such a powerfully awe inspiring backdrop, although it is never seen or alluded to later in the picture, as if director Hawks is teasing the viewer with the possibilities of an epic adventure, only to serve up a story far more intimate tale of strategy and emotion than what the displayed vista suggests.
Throughout nearly the entire film Howard Hawks juggles some old character tropes with pertinent new twists on certain archetypes. John Wayne is as towering a presence as ever, not only for his physical stature but his booming personality as well. One wonders how much went into the writing of John T. Chance and how much of the character is, for all intents and purposes, John Wayne doing what John Wayne does best, and this is coming from someone who has seen only a handful of Wayne’s performances, already sufficient to detect the recognizable traits which keep on appearing from film to film. There is evidently a reason why he so rarely accepted a change of pace: he was very good at giving this type of ‘tough guy’ performance and audiences loved him for it. That being said, Rio Bravo provides him with a love interest, one Hawks genuinely attempts to develop as the story moves along. She is played by Angie Dickinson with great energy. Her natural beauty takes care of one side of the equation, the other being her at times nearly uncontainable emotions. Whereas at the start of the picture she appears to be quite the cool kitten, the more she interacts with Chance the more she babbles uncontrollably when in his presence and flustered by his stoic, unromantic retorts to her advances. Chance cannot shield himself against her charms forever, eventually giving in and taking her as his girl (even though, unsurprisingly, the viewer never ‘sees’ a whole lot going on between the two). Nuanced is definitely not the correct term to describe her acting. The character is clumsy with her words when angry and Dickinson plays it to the hilt. In contrast, when she is the smoother one, it is Wayne who then looks awkward. His character (and maybe even the actor himself) is as far from a ladies man as can be, but he cannot deny his attraction, even though he is unsure how to proceed. The two make for a refreshingly unorthodox couple. Sparks do not exactly fly and this is not even the sort of movie where one should expect something along those lines, yet they have a bizarrely compelling chemistry.
Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson round on the quartet of characters who are familiar yet different. Martin is the mostly trustworthy colleague and friend who can hang with the best of them…if only it weren’t for his severe drinking handicap. Sheriffs, deputes, gun men, people who are proven veterans, they should know how to drink like real men, not fight inner demons as is the case here! Not only does Rio Bravo chooses to explore this difficult dynamic, but it spends a surprisingly large amount of time dwelling on the matter, showcasing how weak Dude has become (and how weak he believes he has become). A once staunch depute is now apparently but the shadow of the man he used to be. Martin gives a nice, quiet performance, never playing up the part too much, giving just enough inflection for the audience to fully understand just how psychologically beaten he is. His just might be the most realistic and nuanced performance of the bunch. Ricky Nelson, as the young buck Colorado, goes against the grain insofar as his character is not so gun-ho to shoot down bad guys and save the day. He understands and respects John T. Chance’s authority. Nelson fits right in as a smart, level headed kid.
Interestingly enough, despite having an all-star cast and a plot blue print ripe for something truly epic, Howard Hawks sends his picture in the opposite direction. Save for a satisfyingly adventurous climax in which both sides engage in a nicely staged shootout, Rio Bravo never aims for an epic feel at all. It is content to remain smaller in scale in two senses. First, the story plays out from beginning to end in the small town where the protagonists are holding Joe Burdette, and second, because the episodic structure of the tale lends itself to emphasizing the smaller character beats. The general storyline concerns John, Dude, Stumpy and Colorado fending off the other Burdette brother’s attempts at freeing Joe and is done exclusively through a series of little schemes, all of which ultimately fail of course. Juxtaposed against these misadventures is the on and off flirtation between John and Feathers, further solidifying the capsule-like nature of the entire story. Hawks was a proven veteran and fully capable of handling his characters and scenes with the greatest of care, so the absence of anything too grand in scale is barely noticeable considering how amusing the individual scenes are. Even the directorial style is confident in its own simplicity. Notwithstanding a couple of notable exceptions, there are no strange, adventurous cameras angles or provocative editing techniques. It is simply a matter of setting up the cameras in the two or three spots in a location necessary to focus on the actors for the scene followed by wise cutting in the editing room. By the time the film gets around to having Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan singing songs in the jail while awaiting Burdette’s next move, the viewer is basically just hanging out with the gang.
There are several fans who consider Rio Bravo an outright masterpiece. While that might be a bit too strong a word for this reviewer, it is a very fun time. Hawks and company deliver an engaging, reasonably light adventure with at least a few fresh spins on old ideas.