Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickens, Walter Brennan
Sheriff John T Chance has locked up local outlaw Joe Burdette for murder. Joe’s brother and his gang are determined to break the baddie out of jail, and Chance is stuck defending his station with only a drunk, a crippled old man and a cocky young gunslinger.
Is It Good:
Rio Bravo is one of the best Howard Hawks films, which places it in the upper echelons of all films in general. A masterpiece of slowly simmering tension, Rio Bravo keeps upping the ante, making Chance’s situation seem more dire by the moment. But at the same time Hawks manages to keep things moving with humor and sweetness – while the three lawmen may be facing impossible odds, they keep things light and have an undeniable camaraderie that really encapsulates everything that men should be when hanging out together.
If there’s anything wrong with Rio Bravo it’s that the love story between John Wayne and Angie Dickinson teeters on the edge of being too much. Every time I watch the film I think it’s weird that old man Wayne gets the girl, and not the young recording star Ricky Nelson, but beyond that the story drags out a little bit too long. Hawks manages to keep it from going over the edge, but there are moments where you’ll feel the cry of ‘Alright, we get it already,’ welling up in your throat.
One thing that I love about Rio Bravo that might be offputting for modern audiences are the musical numbers. With both Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in the movie it only makes sense to have some singing cowboy moments, and Hawks saves them for the second half, where they slightly cut the tension. Then there’s the band playing El Deguello – the song the Mexicans played at the Alamo. As arranged and played here it sounds like the calling card of the spaghetti western, just a couple of years away from dominating the genre.
Is It Worth A Look: I don’t know why you wouldn’t own Rio Bravo. It has a great John Wayne performance – one of his more affable, lovable roles, and it also contains an iconic turn from Walter Brennan as perhaps the greatest old codger in Western history. Dean Martin is surprisingly good, despite never quite looking at home in the Old West. I can’t decide what I think of Ricky Nelson; there’s something stiff and shallow about him, but it works in the role of Colorado, so it’s hard to complain about it. Angie Dickinson, meanwhile, seems to be coming in with a whole different acting style, like she’s playing against Marlon Brando instead of big old Duke Wayne. It’s fascinating to watch their scenes together and see the collisions of new and old Hollywood.
Seeing Wayne up against that style really helps you appreciate what he does. There’s an easy decency to him, a paternal edge that still allows him to learn lessons along the way. As an angry young man growing up in the Reagan era I hated Wayne and everything he stood for, but getting older I’ve grown to understand that even if the man’s personal politics were offbase, the general aspects of his greatest characters were right on target. He’s personally mythic in ways that no actor today could ever be; Wayne constantly towers above everyone else, subtly drawing all energy to himself.
Hawks is at the top of his game in Rio Bravo. Just watch the remarkable, wordless opening scene that establishes all the characters and situations perfectly. He also stages some remarkable action sequences, including a really fun one involving tossed sticks of dynamite. Dean Martin gets some very fun moments of gunmanship, as well.
Random Anecdotes: For film nerds Rio Bravo is a must-own because
it’s Hawks’ answer film to High Noon. Irritated by Gary
Cooper running around town begging for help – and not getting it – Hawks
spun his own fable of America, with Wayne rebuffing all help but with
the townsfolk getting involved anyway. It’s an upbeat vision of the
American spirit, one where people stand by each other and stand up for
each other. Depending on how you look at it, Rio Bravo is either the first film in a thematic trilogy for Wayne and Hawks or it was remade twice, as El Dorado in 1967 and Rio Lobo in 1970.
High Noon, Assault on Precinct 13
Tally So Far