I have a confession to make; for years I had never seen a John Wayne western before. I was certainly aware of who he was and how much he is seen as an American hero to many (an overrated concept in some regards). There is an airport in Orange County named after him, and it houses a big ass statue of him in his western gear which towers over all those traveling in and out of that part of California. Wayne is as conservative as an actor can get in Hollywood, and there are certain people I know personally who do not want to see any of his movies because of that. But c’mon! We’re here to watch a movie, not debate politics! If I can sit through a Chuck Norris movie, then there’s no reason why I can’t see a John Wayne movie. I did see McQ years ago, and that was basically Wayne’s answer to Dirty Harry with him portraying a cop who plays by his own rules. Looks like he was more comfortable doing a western.
Rio Bravo was directed by Howard Hawks, and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made. It was made by Hawks and Wayne as a right wing response to another great western, High Noon. In that film, Gary Cooper played a sheriff who urged the townspeople to come join him in getting armed and defending the town they live in. But in Rio Bravo, John Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, and he has absolutely no time at all for amateurs and will deal only with professionals who know what they are doing. Gives you an idea of how pissed off Wayne was at Cooper.
The plot revolves around Sheriff John T. Chance guarding a prisoner named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) who ends up murdering another man at a bar for no good reason. Working with Chance are an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) who is always complaining about something, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) who spends the movie nervously sobering up, and the new kid in town Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw. They are waiting for the marshal to come to town to take Joe away, but Joe’s brother Nathan (John Russell) will not rest until Joe is freed from jail. Nothing beats brotherly love when you want to keep your older or younger sibling from being someone’s best friend (in a manner of speaking) behind bars.
Rio Bravo is essentially a big buildup to a final a violent confrontation between the Sheriff and Nathan to where bullets fly in all directions to where anyone can get hit. During the movie we see these characters going about their normal lives, and we see the Sheriff start up a subtle romance with the new woman in town, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Most action movies made today would demand that filmmakers cut out the character developments (inadvertently ridding the movie of strong characters) and have us simply go right to the action. It is rare to see a movie like Rio Bravo made today as filmmaking gets more faster paced, and we keep losing the art of subtlety.
I see why Wayne was such an amazingly strong presence in movies like these. He handles the dialogue well, but he is best in moments where he doesn’t say a word. There is a moment where Wayne just glares at someone he doesn’t recognize as friendly, and he keeps staring at him until the nameless man ends up walking away. Like John T. Chance, Wayne had a face that a lot of history on it, and no one else could pull a role like that off without bluffing their way through it.
You could tell that, like his characters, Wayne had been through a lot in his life, and this added immeasurably to his “don’t mess with me” attitude that he exhibited onscreen. He was never some pretty boy actor trying to get the ladies, but a seemingly down to earth guy doing his part to serve and protect others. His character of Sheriff John T. Chance makes mistakes, but he is quick to bounce back to where you can always see that coming.
The other actor who really impressed me here was Dean Martin who played Dude, the once famous gunslinger who has spent way too much time hitting the bottle to ease a broken heart. Maybe it’s because I have this view of Martin being a member of the Rat Pack from so long ago to where I thought that completely overshadowed him as an actor. I figured he was more of a star than an actor, but his performance here proved me wrong. Martin takes his character from what seems like an eternally drunk state into a world of sobriety that he struggles to keep up with. It’s a battle he can never fully win, but he tries to stay on the right track and Martin makes you root for him throughout.
I can also see why Ricky Nelson was cast in Rio Bravo. A big rock star at the time, he was probably cast to help the movie appeal more to women who were crazy about him at the time. Nelson may never have been a truly great actor, but he is very good here as the new kid out to help the Sheriff in times of trouble. Nelson plays it cool here, maybe too cool at times, but you believe that he is quick on the trigger.
But the big scene stealer of this movie is Walter Brennan who plays Stumpy, the old cripple. All that Stumpy can do is guard the jail with his shotgun and from behind closed doors. Stumpy can be seriously trigger happy if you don’t let him know that you’re right outside those jail doors. Every other line he said throughout the movie had the audience I saw it with at New Beverly Cinema in hysterics. The moment where he does that quick impression of John T. Chance near the end of the movie had me laughing my ass off. Brennan is a wonderful presence in Rio Bravo which is surprising in that his character could have easily been annoying throughout.
This is actually the first movie I have ever seen directed by Howard Hawks, and he shoots with an economy of style. He doesn’t try to overburden this movie with too much style and overlong shots that a lot of show-off directors tend to employ. His focus here is mostly on the characters and how they interact with one another. This ends up making the action more exciting as we come to care about these characters to where we don’t them to get hurt. Howard is also an old-fashioned director in that there is not a lot of complexity in these characters. This is essentially a good guys vs. bad guys movie, and I have no problem believing it is one of the best examples of its genre.
Director John Carpenter also pointed out that one of Hawks’ strongest attributes as a filmmaker is his inclusion of strong women. The example of that in Rio Bravo is in the form of Angie Dickinson’s character of Feathers who proves to be the only person in the entire movie who can somehow tame the elusive John T. Chance. You never ever doubt that Feathers is an independent woman who can get by on her own terms. She’s tough, and yet Dickinson manages to bring some vulnerability to Feathers to where she doesn’t always appear to be trustworthy.
The scenes she has with Wayne are strong, and she succeeds in bringing out his vulnerabilities to the point where Wayne can’t help but appear a little goofy. This is all despite the fact that Wayne was 51 and Dickinson was only 26 when they made this movie. Yet after all these years, people keep treating older stars who work with or date younger ones with such disdain as if this was something new. In all honesty, it turns out that Wayne was very nervous about the love scenes in regards to the age difference. Then again, I don’t think I would have noticed their age difference unless someone pointed it out to me.
Rio Bravo is filled with many memorable moments that are not easily forgotten. The moment where Dude takes out a shooter in a bar is a brilliant one you never see coming. The shootouts are still exciting as hell, especially when good use is made of a flower pot being hurled through a window.
One of my truly favorite moments is when all the men come in harmony together as they sing and play “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It reminded me of one of my favorite moments from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws when Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw were in the boat singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” I love those moments in films when people find a way to come together despite whatever differences keep them apart.
I found Rio Bravo to be an excellent western, and it’s no surprise to me that it is one of the most influential westerns ever made. John Carpenter made his own version of it years later with Assault on Precinct 13 which featured a modern day police station under siege. If you look closely at the credits, you will see that the film editor for the movie was John T. Chance. Carpenter used the name of Wayne’s character as a pseudonym for his role as editor. Plus, I can’t help but wonder if we would ever have had Gene Wilder’s brilliantly hilarious character of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles without Martin’s character of Dude to work off of.
This movie certainly holds a strong place in the cinema history of westerns, and it endures to this very day.
Of course, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom will probably end up remaking this movie after they have pillaged all the horror franchises they can.
“That’ll be the day!”