The classic status attributed to Howard Hawks‘ Rio Bravo (1959) has always puzzled me. While it’s a solid, well-done Western, it doesn’t rank with the best Westerns of the 1950s (e.g., Shane, The Hanging Tree, 3:10 to Yuma, the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations, etc.). It’s also not as good as the movie that allegedly inspired it: High Noon.
Hawks, who disliked High Noon, famously said: “I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him.” Thus, Rio Bravo is often considered to be Hawks’ and star John Wayne’s cinematic response to Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 frontier allegory.
The plot is simple: Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) when the latter guns down a man in cold blood. Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell from TV’s Lawman) “bottles up” the town and hires a bunch of professional gunfighters to spring Joe from jail. That leaves Chance, his elderly deputy Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and his alcoholic former deputy Dude (Dean Martin) to guard Joe until a marshal arrives in six weeks. One of Chance’s friends states it eloquently: “A game-legged old man and a drunk? That’s all you got?”
In Hawks’ world, though, that’s all that Chance wants. Unlike Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon, Chance doesn’t solicit help. It’s not the job of married men with families to face hired guns. That’s what Chance was hired to do (although he does eventually accept help from a young fast gun played by Ricky Nelson). This exaggerated view of public service lends a little thematic density to an otherwise lightweight plot.
Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, who co-wrote Hawks’ The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner), certainly provide a quotable screenplay. After Chance and con woman Feathers (Angie Dickinson) follow up their first kiss with a sequel, she quips: “I’m glad we tried it a second time. It’s better when two people do it.” Granted, it’s a line that seems more appropriate for The Big Sleep than a Western–but it’s still entertaining. Indeed, Feathers seems to be a character lifted from a late ’40s film noir, as evidenced by the following exchange in which Chance confronts her with a “wanted” poster:
Feathers: This isn’t the first time that handbill has come up. I’d like to know what to do about it.
Chance: Well, you could quit playing cards…wearing feathers.
Feathers: No, sheriff. No, I’m not going to do that. You see…that’s what I’d do if I were the kind of girl that you think I am.
Dickinson and Dean Martin stand out in the cast. She hits all the right notes as the sassy Feathers, who keeps missing the stagecoach out of town because she has finally found a man that interests her. Martin has a more difficult role, playing a drunk trying to sober up in the middle of a life-threatening situation. He’s quite effective in the film’s first half before getting cleaned up a little too quickly for the big climax. As for Wayne and Brennan, they plays roles that each has done at least a half-dozen times.
That brings us to Ricky Nelson, who seems miscast as Colorado, the young gunfighter. Still, he tries hard and it helps that he doesn’t have a lot of lines. He does fine in the singing department when he and Dino duet on the memorably-titled “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” (which Dimitri Tiomkin adapted from his own theme for an earlier Hawks/Wayne effort, 1948’s Red River). Allegedly, Elvis Presley was interested in playing Colorado, but his business manager Colonel Tom Parker nixed the idea.
Director Hawks, who was a master at crafting lean movies, surprisingly lets Rio Bravo drift along at a leisurely 141 minutes. He still musters some exciting action scenes, although his best set piece contains little action and comes at the beginning of the film. Rio Bravo opens with a four-minute scene with no dialogue, but contains plenty of information. We learn that Dean’s character is a drunk that will stoop to anything for a drink. We see the murder committed by Joe Burdette that sets the film’s plot in motion. And we see that the townfolk, after witnessing a senseless murder, are too intimidated to do anything about it.
Interestingly, Hawks, Wayne, and screenwriter Brackett teamed up again seven years later for the semi-remake El Dorado. This time around, Wayne is a gunfighter, Robert Mitchum is an alcoholic sheriff, and James Caan is a young gun named Mississippi. It’s not as good as Rio Bravo, but, like its predecessor, is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!