“You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.”
Rio Bravo is a 1959 American Western film directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson. The supporting cast includes Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, and Ward Bond. The script was written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell.
In short, the film is about a small-town sheriff (John Wayne) in the American West enlisting the help of a cripple (Walter Brennan), a drunk (Dean Martin), and a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson) in his efforts to hold in jail the brother (Claude Akins) of the local bad guy (John Russell).
The film was made as a response to High Noon, which is sometimes thought to be an allegory for blacklisting in Hollywood, as well as a critique of McCarthyism. Wayne would later call High Noon “un-American” and say he did not regret helping run the writer, Carl Foreman, out of the country. Wayne teamed up with director Howard Hawks to tell the story his way. In Rio Bravo, Chance is surrounded by allies – a deputy recovering from alcoholism (Dude), a young untried gunfighter (Colorado), a limping “crippled” old man (Stumpy), a Mexican innkeeper (Carlos), his wife (Consuela), and an attractive young woman (Feathers) — and repeatedly turns down aid from anyone he doesn’t think is capable of helping him, though in the final shootout they come to help him anyway. “Who’ll turn up next?” Wayne asks amid the gunfire, to which Colorado replies: “Maybe the girl with another flower pot.”
No matter where you stand on the political aspects of the film, it is a great example of both Hawks and Wayne doing what they do best. Hawks made some of the most entertaining films of the 1930s and 40s, including Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, and To Have And Have Not, and he had a style of his own that is often unappreciated for its simplicity. Never a fan of the close-up, he preferred shots where the relationships between the characters and the locations were highlighted. Rio Bravo shows us actors framed in windows or doorways, so we see them in a wider setting and build up our own sense of the geography of the small town – the saloon, the jailhouse, the long dark street that connects them. These shots establish the action so well; we know that there is nowhere to run when the showdown starts.
“Sorry don’t get it done, Dude. That’s the second time you hit me. Don’t ever do it again.”
The characters are also a great strength of the film. John Wayne never looked particularly sexy, but Angie Dickinson works so hard as Feathers, the smitten love-interest, that you buy it. Wayne’s character, John T Chance, looks poleaxed by her attentions, which gives him a charm that sometimes eluded him. There are other great performances, particularly from Dean Martin as Dude, the drunk who has to sober up, and Ricky Nelson as Colorado, the young gunslinger.
Hawks was versatile as a director, filming comedies, dramas, gangster films, science fiction, film noir, and Westerns. Hawks’s own functional definition of what constitutes a “good movie” is revealing of his no-nonsense style: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” Hawks also defined a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you”.
While Hawks was not sympathetic to feminism, he popularized the Hawksian woman archetype, which has been cited as a prototype of the post-feminist movement.
Orson Welles in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich said of Howard Hawks in comparison to John Ford “Hawks is great prose; Ford is poetry”.
Despite Hawks work in a variety of Hollywood genres he still retained an independent sensibility. Film critic David Thomson wrote of Hawks in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film “Far from being the meek purveyor of Hollywood forms, he always chose to turn them upside down, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, ostensibly an adventure and a thriller, are really love stories. Rio Bravo, apparently a Western – everyone wears a cowboy hat – is a comedy conversation piece. The ostensible comedies are shot through with exposed emotions, with the subtlest views of the sex war, and with a wry acknowledgment of the incompatibility of men and women.” As David Boxwell states “It’s a body of work that has been accused of ahistorical and adolescent escapism, but Hawks’ fans rejoice in his oeuvre‘s remarkable avoidance of Hollywood’s religiosity, bathos, flag-waving, and sentimentality.
His directorial style and the use of natural, conversational dialogue in his films were cited a major influence on many noted filmmakers, including Robert Altman, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino. His work is admired by many notable directors including Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut, Michael Mann and Jacques Rivette.
Although his work was not initially taken seriously by British critics of the Sight and Sound circle, he was venerated by French critics associated with Cahiers du cinéma, who intellectualized his work in a way Hawks himself was moderately amused by, and he was also admired by more independent British writers such as Robin Wood. Wood named the Hawks-directed Rio Bravo as his top film of all time.
Ebert, R. 2009. Rio Bravo Movie Review & Film Summary (1959) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/rio-bravo-1959 [Accessed: 9 Jul 2013].
Rottentomatoes.com. 2008. Rio Bravo – Movie Reviews – Rotten Tomatoes. [online] Available at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/rio_bravo/reviews/#type=top_critics [Accessed: 9 Jul 2013].
Theasc.com. 2007. The ASC — American Cinematographer: DVD Playback:. [online] Available at: http://www.theasc.com/ac_magazine/October2007/DVDPlayback/page3.php [Accessed: 9 Jul 2013].