“A game-legged old man and a drunk. Is that all you got?”
“That’s what I’ve got.”
When Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) hands that laconic reply to the question from his friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), it more or less sums up what the whole film is trying to say. Anybody who has ever seen a few Howard Hawks movies will know just how much store he set by the idea of professionalism. The small group of self-contained professionals is a recurrent theme in his work, and Rio Bravo may be the best example of this.
I won’t go into the plot in great detail here since it is, frankly, a little thin for a film with a running time creeping up towards two and a half hours. Chance arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder and must hold him in the town jail until the Marshal arrives. All the time, the town is under a virtual state of siege from the hired gunmen of Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell). Throw in a typically Hawksian romance between Chance and a poker playing drifter called Feathers (Angie Dickinson), and that’s it. However, this is really a character driven movie, and the plot functions mainly to provide the necessary circumstances to allow the characters to interact. It is this interaction that elevates Rio Bravo to the status of one of the great westerns. I’d challenge anyone to sit through this and not feel for these people by the end; more than that, you actually get the sense of coming to know them. Think about Chance’s coolly competent lawman who’s reduced almost to an awkward schoolboy when confronted with a sassy, attractive woman; Dude’s (Dean Martin) drunken deputy who must face down his personal demons if he’s ever to retrieve his self-respect from the whiskey bottle where he left it; and let’s not forget Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the trigger-happy cripple whose cackling and complaining adds so much warmth and humour to it all.
John Wayne gives one of his most relaxed performances in this film and while this has been criticised by some, I think it fits the pace of the piece. The acting is understated and just plain likable from a man whose talents many are quick to criticise and slow to acknowledge. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing this part with the natural confidence displayed by Wayne. Dean Martin’s Dude remains convincing as the character gradually transforms himself from a pitiful rummy fishing for drink money in spittoons into a man proud enough to enter by the front door once again. When the doubts and temptations assail him and threaten to haul him back into oblivion, you can’t help rooting for him. The great Walter Brennan has a high time with his role as Stumpy and manages to steal nearly every scene he appears in. The only weak performances come from Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson. But if you remember that Dickinson was meant to provide eye candy, Nelson was there to draw in contemporary youth, and that the real focus was on Chance, Dude and Stumpy then it doesn’t seem so important.
While most western directors liked to get out into the wide open spaces, Hawks opted to shoot the entire film within the confines of the town. This has the effect of creating both a claustrophobic tension and a comfortable coziness. In keeping with the theme of professional lawmen, the film itself exudes a slick professional feel. The maturity of Hawks direction can be seen in the first five minutes of the movie, when the status of the main characters and the basis of the plot are presented clearly and explicitly without one word of dialogue being spoken. The script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett may develop at a leisurely pace, but it’s always logical and it’s packed full of memorable lines. Mention should also be made of the score by Dimitri Tiomkin; it complements the action perfectly and the use of the Deguello is yet another of the joys the film has to offer.
I can’t finish this piece without referring to the fact that Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon. Hawks took exception to the idea of a lawman running around town desperately seeking help from a scared and apathetic citizenry. This was anathema to a man who worshipped at the altar of the professional ethic. To Hawks, a man ought to play the cards dealt to him regardless of the odds stacked against him. Now I have no interest in discussing the politics, either implicit or explicit, of these two films but I do find myself drawn more often to Rio Bravo. While I like and admire High Noon, it concentrates on the selfish fears of men where Rio Bravo celebrates the camaraderie and warmth of humanity – I know which I find more appealing.
For a long time Rio Bravo was only available on DVD on a bare-bones edition. Last year saw the release of a 2-disc SE with a commentary and lots of special features. Initial reports were that the transfer was significantly darker than the old version and I was wary of the upgrade. However, I eventually decided to take a chance and was pleasantly surprised. The new transfer is darker but then the old one was too washed out and faded anyway. It’s not perfect but I do feel it’s an improvement on the original and I have no regrets whatsoever about purchasing it. Maybe Rio Bravo isn’t the best western ever made but, if not, it’s only a few paces behind. Over the years, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other and I continue to enjoy it – that’s as good a recommendation as I can offer.
14 thoughts on “Rio Bravo”
Huzzah! Someone else who doesn’t follow the party line that the new DVD is awful; the big improvement is is the interior scenes which at last look more like interiors and less like they’re lit up by the mothership from Close Encounters.
As for High Noon v Rio Bravo, I’m uncomfortable with the comparison of two films I admire; I think for all Hawks and Wayne’s talk of it being a riposte against a film where the hero goes begging for help, it’s purely down to the politics of those involved and not much to do with the merits of either film. High Noon is a warning that evil can triumph if somebody – one man (okay, and his wife…) – is not willing to take a stand for what is right. Rio Bravo might be about a collective triumph, but there appear to be about as many townsfolk rooting for John T. Chance as there were for Kane in Hadleyville.
I agree with you that Rio Bravo & High Noon are really quite different films – the comparisons coming down to the political jousting of the time. As I said, I enjoy both films but for different reasons. Rio Bravo will likely remain my all-time favorite western due to that innate feeling that everyone involved was having a hell of a good time, and managing to make the viewer share the same sense of enjoyment.
As for the new DVD, I can’t really see why there was so much initial fuss. It’s certainly not a disaster and, like you said, the interiors look way better. I wonder if the criticism damaged sales? I know I put off buying it for a time because of that.
Hey pallie, great reveiw of “Rio Bravo”….the classic of classic westerns. Many Dino devotees have often wondered why our Dino never got nominated and won the oscar for his portrayal of the Dude….probably our great man’s greatest screen performance.
Thanks for the comment :).
While I do think that Dino gave his best acting performance in ‘Rio Bravo’, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was oscar winning stuff – but he was definitely sympathetic and believable.
Another excellent review, Colin, and one close to my heart as this is my favorite western. Maybe not, as you say, the “best” western of all time, but “best” is a term uncomfortably applied to a medium as subjective as art and besides, try and find another western—hell, another MOVIE—more flat-out entertaining than this one.
I must take the ever-so-slightest issue with your saying that Angie Dickinson isn’t very good in this movie. I think she’s wonderful, and not just because of the outfit she wears at the end! In a part clearly modeled on Lauren Bacall’s part in “To Have and Have Not,” I think she brings just the right amount of cynicism and girlish pluck. Now Rick Nelson, on the other hand, yeah. Bad. Great singer, bad actor. It would have been wonderful if Elvis had been offered this part, because he at least had the potential to be a good actor, but Colonel Tom Parker would never have let him be in a movie where he wasn’t the star…well, that’s probably another website altogether. Anyway, great review, and I agree the new transfer of the film is the better one. I bought it the day it came out.
Say, I was wondering, why haven’t you reviewed (at least on Riding The High Country) the movie that many (if not most) people consider IS the best western of all time, “The Searchers”? That’s actually what I came here to find today, and instead wound up reading all your other John Wayne reviews. I’d be interested to hear your take on it and its legacy. I’ve always felt the greatness of the film was marred at least a bit by the “outdoors” scenes which were so obviously, clearly filmed on an indoors set, as one contemporary reviewer said “as if the actors were bedding down in the display window of an L.L. Bean store.” For this greatest of all on-location directors, it’s jarring. Anyway, whenever you get around to it I’ll get in line to read it.
Cheers Bruce, glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts on the movie.
As for The Searchers, it’s one of those films about which so much has been written over the years that I’ve always felt not only a little intimidated about tackling, but also concerned that I couldn’t possibly have anything new or worthwhile to add. Mind you, maybe I’ll get round to it at some point since I felt something similar about Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid but ended up quite enjoying writing about it.
Hi, Colin and Bruce H – first, another great review, Colin, of one of my all-time favourite Westerns. Its pace is languid but it never drags – mainly because of the rich development of the characters to which you refer. I’m with Bruce about Angie Dickinson, though – I think she’s wonderful in it and especially good in her bantering with the John Wayne character.
As it happens, Steve, i just watched this again about a week ago. It just never gets old or tired and there’s really not much to complain about at all.
On reflection, I do think I came across as overcritical of Angie Dickinson’s role. It is a pure Hawks creation, blending in with a number of other smart females in his films, and she plays very well indeed off Wayne.
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Hands down my fav Hawks film. Love the cast, the look and the feel of the film. Well said, Colin. Who cares is Miss Dickinson is just eye candy, she is my kind of eye candy! I drag this out every year or two for a watch. It never fails to entertain.
I just watched it over the Christmas holidays – it was as enjoyable as ever.
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