Rio Bravo (1959): Howard Hawks’ “Response” to High Noon

Rio Bravo:  Howard Hawks' "Response" to High Noon The classic status attributed to Howard HawksRio 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!

 

  • Ethan the Searcher

    Anyone who would even mention 3:10 to Yuma and the Hanging Tree in the same sentence as Shane & Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns obviously should not be reviewing western movies. That is the silliest statement I have ever seen on Movie Fan Fare.
    I personally agree with Hawks & Wayne about High Noon and never cared for that western even when I was kid. Western heroes are Shane, who rides into town alone to do what they ahve to do. Anthony Mann’s heroes never look to anyone or anything for help. That is what makes westerns great. One man against all the odds. Who really wants to watch some sheriff who walks around whining and complaining and begging for help? Even the protaganist is {shiver} 3:10 is doing what he has to do…alone.
    Obviouly the reviewer has never seen Hawks’ To Have and Have Not which preceeds Rio Bravo. Had he done so he would not praise Dickinson’s acting but would instead comment on the fact that she does a straight impersonation of Bacall at times. No doubt at the behest of Hawks who seems to like his women in movies and in real life like these charcters.
    Ricky Nelson’s character is the Young Gunslinger with a level head, not a hot head as is so often seen in movies. A great role model and inspiration for young guys & kids. Also I think underplaying a role as Nelson does is not a case of having trouble acting the role. He is understated in a cast of scenery chewing old pros and his low key approach actually makes him stand out.
    The moive also about redemption. Martin’s chacter is some one ever person can root for. Who hasn’t had a friend, relative or even themselves with a drinking/drug problem that they helped the individual fight at least once in their lives. Feathers for once sticks around instead of doing the easy thing..running out. And who amonst you has not had a lover who ran out on you? Often when the going got tough. She sticks around and actually puts herself in jeporady by helping.
    Old geezers like I am now can root for Brennan {When I first saw this film I was kid and didn’t even know about this great actors illustrious career and his 3 oscars}. But I knew Ricky Nelson and thought he was cool. And I knew John Wayne and never would I have thouht he’d beg for help. He was the guy you wanted to be when you grew up. Stong, brave, determined and standing for want was right.
    One more note. Everyone seems to forget that even with Wayne not seeking help the little Mexican Hotel owner shows up with his shotgun and joins in the final battle. That’s a lot braver than Will Kane who got paid to get shot at. That’s a great role. Back then mexicans were stereotypically used as bad guys or peons not heroic types {Hawkes could have cast any caucasian in that role}. Remember Wayne said he didn’t want help BUT why would that cause an entire town not to try to help out in some way? The fiesty innkeeper wasn’t even going to listen to Wayne. He was going to help his friend.
    I’ve watched this film countless times. In later years with my grandson. who loves it, as he grew from a boy to a young man. He loves the movie. as well. I think it has to do with the themes. The characters. It is a classic in my opinion.

  • Ethan the Searcher

    Anyone who would even mention 3:10 to Yuma and the Hanging Tree in the same sentence as Shane & Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns obviously should not be reviewing western movies. That is the silliest statement I have ever seen on Movie Fan Fare.
    I personally agree with Hawks & Wayne about High Noon and never cared for that western even when I was kid. Western heroes are Shane, who rides into town alone to do what they ahve to do. Anthony Mann’s heroes never look to anyone or anything for help. That is what makes westerns great. One man against all the odds. Who really wants to watch some sheriff who walks around whining and complaining and begging for help? Even the protaganist is {shiver} 3:10 is doing what he has to do…alone.
    Obviouly the reviewer has never seen Hawks’ To Have and Have Not which preceeds Rio Bravo. Had he done so he would not praise Dickinson’s acting but would instead comment on the fact that she does a straight impersonation of Bacall at times. No doubt at the behest of Hawks who seems to like his women in movies and in real life like these charcters.
    Ricky Nelson’s character is the Young Gunslinger with a level head, not a hot head as is so often seen in movies. A great role model and inspiration for young guys & kids. Also I think underplaying a role as Nelson does is not a case of having trouble acting the role. He is understated in a cast of scenery chewing old pros and his low key approach actually makes him stand out.
    The moive also about redemption. Martin’s chacter is some one ever person can root for. Who hasn’t had a friend, relative or even themselves with a drinking/drug problem that they helped the individual fight at least once in their lives. Feathers for once sticks around instead of doing the easy thing..running out. And who amonst you has not had a lover who ran out on you? Often when the going got tough. She sticks around and actually puts herself in jeporady by helping.
    Old geezers like I am now can root for Brennan {When I first saw this film I was kid and didn’t even know about this great actors illustrious career and his 3 oscars}. But I knew Ricky Nelson and thought he was cool. And I knew John Wayne and never would I have thouht he’d beg for help. He was the guy you wanted to be when you grew up. Stong, brave, determined and standing for want was right.
    One more note. Everyone seems to forget that even with Wayne not seeking help the little Mexican Hotel owner shows up with his shotgun and joins in the final battle. That’s a lot braver than Will Kane who got paid to get shot at. That’s a great role. Back then mexicans were stereotypically used as bad guys or peons not heroic types {Hawkes could have cast any caucasian in that role}. Remember Wayne said he didn’t want help BUT why would that cause an entire town not to try to help out in some way? The fiesty innkeeper wasn’t even going to listen to Wayne. He was going to help his friend.
    I’ve watched this film countless times. In later years with my grandson. who loves it, as he grew from a boy to a young man. He loves the movie. as well. I think it has to do with the themes. The characters. It is a classic in my opinion.

  • RVoss

    It’s heresy to say so, I know, but most John Wayne films are to the authentic West what Frankenstein movies are to organ transplants—farces. Coming close to believability in casting, costume and story line would be Ed Harris’ Appaloosa, Tom Gries’ Will Penny, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, or Dick Richards’ Culpepper Cattle Co.

  • Wayne P.

    Great film and a bit of classic dialogue from it: Ward Bonds character: “You mean, all youve got is an old cripple, a drunk and a kid?” John Waynes character: “No, thats what Ive got!”

  • Jeff Heise

    I usually rank RIO BRAVO as one of the greatest westerns ever, along with SHANE, THE WILD BUNCH, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY. Whether Hawks and Wayne disliked HIGH NOON and made this film to “answer it” (I always chuckle over the supposed vehemence the Duke felt for that film-when Cooper won the Oscar Wayne accepted for him. Interesting that he would accept an Oscar for a film he hated…) or they just wanted to make a good western entertainment makes no difference to me. This is 141 minutes of 3 then 4 men and even 1 woman waiting around for something to happen-that’s really the plot when you get right down to it, and to keep an audience engaged that long and for over 50 years must say something for the talent both behind and in front of the camera.

    I also love the opening sequence: that Howard Hawks-probably the best director of rapid-fire dialogue and punchy phraseology with the possible exception of Robert Altman-would begin such a languid film with 5-6 minutes of straight action with minimum dialogue, and 30 years after the talkie revolution, is so radical that it would be like Quentin Tarantino making a film with a solid 30 minutes with no talking. The song “My Rifle, Pony and Me” is also unusual in that in the midst of all the tension going on outside the jail, for Hawks and his characters to just take a few minutes and perform a song that does not further the plot one iota but give a light hearted breather is kind of like having a 7th-inning stretch in the final game of the world series with the score tied at 1-1-not really necessary but a nice touch anyway.

    I have been watching a lot of Dean Martin films in the last few years, and I am becoming convinced that he never realized his full potential as a dramatic actor. His work in this film, SONS OF KATIE ELDER, THE YOUNG LIONS and AIRPORT show what he could have done, had he not been so busy with his other career as one of the greatest lounge singers we ever had, and probably feeling like “why bother?” He was probably more successful than he ever dreamed and since he made so much of what he did look effortless, to stretch a little further by doing more straight roles probably just did not appeal to him, as evidenced by his film career kind of petering out in the 70′s to concentrate on his TV show and Vegas appearances. What he could have done with someone like Lumet or Peckinpah or today, someone like Tarantino or Eastwood….

    As for Ricky Nelson, he is playing a variation on himself, but there is a confidence to him that was never seen with acting attempts by other singers of his ilk, like Bobby Vinton or Fabian. His casting was an attempt to cash in on his emerging popularity, but you never look at this film and find yourself wincing every time he comes on. He carries his share of the film and that’s enough. Angie Dickinson is wonderful as Feathers, and it is too bad that she was not of age in the golden age of Film Noir-she would have been incredible as one of those legendary femme fatales like Jane Greer and Peggy Cummins.

    RIO BRAVO is one of those films whose rep has grown exponentially since the advent of home video, and, along with films like CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, just seems to get fresher and more fascinating as time goes on. It’s one of those movies that is so good that you wish you could spend more time with the characters and see what they will be up to next, because you like being with them.

  • Gord Jackson

    I’m one who likes both HIGH NOON and RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO, YELLOW RIBBON, TGTBATU plus FROM HELL TO TEXAS. And I also agree that Ricky Nelson’s low-key approach works brilliantly.

  • Butch Knouse

    The best line in the movie is when Wayne and Dean are discussing the Ricky Nelson character. D: “Usually a kid with his reputation is itching for a fight.” W: ” I think he’s SO good that he doesn’t feel the need to prove himself”.

  • mike

    I would rank Rio Bravo third on my all time list of westerns–tied for first are The Searchers and The Wild Bunch. High Noon was exceptional but sorta kitzy if you know what I mean. Rio Bravo was the Casablanca of the 50′s–the one liners are great.

  • James

    Okay, I fail to understand what is so unusual about Kane requesting help from the towns’ people in High Noon?? Historically, it was the towns’ people who took down the James-Younger Gang and, currently, the police always request assistance from the general public with criminals!!