(1970) director Howard Hawks
A rather disappointing swan song for the great American auteur Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo is his second re-working of his great Western Rio Bravo (1959) from a decade prior and his final film. Also disappointing was his prior re-working of Rio Bravo, El Dorado (1966). Many critics consider Rio Bravo to be his last great film, but it’s interesting that he went back to the well not just once but twice.
I’d queued up both Rio Bravo and Rio Lobo back when I’d seen Red River (1948), but only got around to seeing them after watching John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which truth be told, is better re-working of the material than Hawks himself managed. By the 1960’s, the classic Hollywood Western had gone through some major evolutionary changes, whipped about by directors like Sergio Leone (and other Spaghetti Westerns) and Sam Peckinpah. Like many film genres, the Western is a lens upon the time of its production, a set of rules or standards or structures which can be used as a metaphorical setting for stories about other things. But the Western in the 1960’s and 1970’s became typically more revisionist, at least in regards to the way that the classic Western had mythologized American values and history. It’s actually probably a fantastic cultural study to pore over the bulk of the genre this way.
But Rio Lobo is stuck. It’s still trying to be the classic Western as in the heyday of the studio system, following the conventions, not breaking from them, and it pins its Hollywood style on its leading man, John Wayne, yet again. But here, he’s now over 60 and his voice is raspier and more tired-sounding. He’s bigger and older, still a commanding presence, but now surrounded not by quality players as in Rio Bravo, but a bunch of not so hot young actors (with the exception of the great Jack Elam). And the story, which is kind of convoluted when you boil it down (even though it is written or co-written as was Rio Bravo by Leigh Brackett), is more of a paint-by-numbers sort of build-up to the shoot-out at the end.
What’s interesting about viewing films through the auteur theory lens is that even the poorer films of a great director’s oeuvre are fascinating. In studying authorship, it probably is more interesting, particularly with a good Hawksian film scholar. But sadly, watched for simple pure enjoyment, it’s not an argument in and of itself for Hawks, Wayne, or the Western at all. It’s tired and heavy with re-tread. And especially so for me, since only earlier in the day I’d watched Rio Bravo.
I’m not trying to say what makes a film great or not great. I’m sure there are a lot of ways to slice it, analyze it, parse it, and study it. I watched it because it was a Howard Hawks film, a sibling of sorts of Rio Bravo. So, don’t get me wrong, I do watch films accordingly. It’s just too bad that his final film was a mere shadow of his finer work. But one might find that that is often the case.