The great Howard Hawks set out to direct “Rio Bravo” after a four year hiatus. Following the box office failure of his 1955 film “Land of the Pharaohs”, Hawks left Hollywood feeling he had lost his touch. But despite his uncertainties, his return to filmmaking resulted in one of the most entertaining and influential Westerns ever made.
The film was originally titled “Bull By the Tail” and was made as a rebuttal to 1952’s “High Noon”. Reasons for John Wayne’s dislike of “High Noon” were well known, but Hawks spoke specifically against the film’s cowering weak-kneed sheriff begging his reluctant townsfolk for help. Hawks and Wayne set out to make a film featuring a similar danger, but with a hero unafraid and willing to fulfill his public duty no matter what the threat.
“Rio Bravo” also marks an interesting turn in John Wayne’s career. It could be called the second stage of his career in Westerns. In the film you see him poking fun at the public image he had developed over the years. We see him as older, a little slower, not quite as fit, but ever the strong, stoic figure of his past films. Hawks utilized Wayne’s stardom but wasn’t afraid to shake it up a bit.
The story has Wayne playing John T. Chance, sheriff of Rio Bravo, Texas. Chance arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder and puts him in jail until the U.S. Marshall can arrive six days later. Joe’s brother, a wealthy cattle rancher named Nathan (John Russell), surrounds the town with his thugs waiting for his opportunity to bust Joe out of jail before the marshals arrive. At Chance’s side is Dude (Dean Martin), an alcoholic struggling with sobriety and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) a crippled elderly jailer.
You also have Ricky Nelson in a fun bit of casting. He plays a young gunslinger named Colorado who comes into town but is reluctant to get involved in the sheriff’s problems. A well known star from his work in television and music, Nelson may have been the biggest global star in the film.
Angie Dickinson (in what would be her breakout role) plays a traveling gambler named Feathers. Despite an obvious age difference, she and Wayne share a playfully combative onscreen relationship. Dickinson’s character fit the description of a ‘Hawksian Woman’. They often bucked the normal gender roles by presenting tough women who could easily hold their own with their male counterpart whether in character or in the performance. Dickinson more than holds her own.
The script was handled by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Both had previously collaborated with Hawks on his film noir classic “The Big Sleep” (later Brackett would co-write “The Empire Strikes Back”). Their story seamlessly moves through its 140 minute running time, never wasting a scene or bogging down. The story’s premise is naturally intense and several films would pull inspiration from it including Hawks’ own “El Dorado” from 1966, 1970’s “Rio Lobo”, and even John Carpenter’s police thriller “Assault on Precinct 13”.
It also looks fantastic. The film rarely steps outside of its small western town setting and that serves as a strength. It allows the camera to focus more on the characters while giving much of the town an identity. Hawks’ camera is also instrumental in building up the tension in a number of different character interactions. Frame after frame features the director skillfully serving his story in one visual form or another.
Howard Hawks was one of the most versatile filmmakers of his craft. He made quality films in nearly every genre, from screwball comedies to gangster pictures. “Rio Bravo” marked a significant return for him as well as giving us a transforming performance from John Wayne. But the glue of the film may be the supporting performances. There is no way “Rio Bravo” would be as good if not for Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson. When you put all of these pieces together and view it as a whole it’s easy to see why “Rio Bravo” is considered a classic.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS