(1959) director Howard Hawks
Inspired by watching John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which was inspired by director Howard Hawks 1959 Western, I decided to queue up Rio Bravo, which I’d actually had in my film queue for a few years now anyways. I’ve often noted that it’s pretty impossible to have seen all the great films of the world, probably impossible to have seen simply all the great films from Hollywood alone. And I watch a hell of a lot of movies compared to the average Joe. Bottom line, I’d never seen Hawks’ great western, though I had seen one of his own re-tinkerings with it, his 1966 film El Dorado.
It’s one thing to see the films that cannibalized Rio Bravo, or paid homage to it. It’s another to go to the source material, one of Hawks’ most-beloved films.
It stars John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, and Ricky Nelson, so the cast, while a little on the odd side as a grouping, is actually pretty damn great. Wayne is the sheriff in a Texas town, holding prisoner the murderous low-life brother of a wealthy, disreputable family until regional authorities come to take him for trial. But the villain’s brother hires a litany of would-be killers for money to stake out the town and wait for the right moment to strike and free the prisoner. All that Wayne’s sheriff has on his side, is the gimpy Brennan, the recovering alcoholic Martin, and eventually the young hotshot Nelson against the crew of killers-for-hire. Well, actually, he’s go the sexy, slightly sullied Dickinson and the diminutive Mexican hotelier on his side too, but then that’s all part of the film’s legend.
It’s said that this film was made, partially, in response to High Noon (1952), the classic Fred Zinneman Western starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, which is considered a metaphorical critique of McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC). In High Noon, Cooper is a sheriff who can find no one to help him fend off the coming of a gang set to kill him. The town’s cowardice is meant to reflect the cowardice of those who didn’t stand beside the accused Communists. Wayne in particular hated High Noon for these reasons, and the common reading is that Rio Bravo is a conservative political response to the earlier film. In Rio Bravo, while Wayne’s buddies are all a little questionable on the outside, they all stand up, show their pluck and their worth in the end. I actually don’t know how that plays out with the HUAC metaphor, but it is oppositional in its narrative.
More than anything, it’s a Howard Hawks film, and a great one for applying the Auteur Theory to as it exemplifies many of Hawks’ ideological considerations, visual styles, characterization, and humor. It’s certainly the best of Hawks’ Westerns that I have seen and a very likable film. You can easily see why it’s a favorite of so many.
I grew up disliking Wayne, perhaps for what he symbolizes (and how much of that includes his conservative politics) or perhaps what I’ve projected on him. But Wayne in cinema is quite a grand and interesting figure, who starred in numerous great films made by a number of great directors. This film, made at the end of what is sometimes referred to as the “Western cycle”, or the end of the period of the classic Hollywood Western, still works from that same set of staple elements that made the classic Hollywood Western a great genre. It’s still part of the studio system, it’s classic Hollywood, up and down. Wayne is 50 years old in this film, but he’s still a rock-solid hero and star.
Angie Dickinson is striking beautiful in this film (I can’t say as I’d ever thought much of her before), and she’s a classic Hawksian female lead: fast-talking, able to drink and “be one of the guys.” Martin puts in a solid dramatic performance, with added humor and a song as well. Heck, Ricky Nelson, even not given much to do and not doing a whole lot with it, also is a charming asset in the film. And Walter Brennan. Jeez, I love Walter Brennan. A fine film, all told.