Directed by Howard Hawks
It seems to me that older films can be considered great for two main reasons. One has to do with being a bit of an artifact of a particular moment in history, and the second has to do with creating a trend that so many other films copied. The first of these seems to be the easiest to notice on a first watch while the second doesn’t always reveal itself so immediately simply because the tricks and concepts they ignited don’t seem, to a modern audience, to be all that special. If anything it might feel cliche, but it might just be that a particular great film invented that cliche.
Rio Bravo feels like a nice, entertaining, simple cowboy film. It’s a John Wayne character doing John Wayne things in his John Wayne drawl. There’s a bad guy, a prisoner, a shootout, camaraderie, and the good guys win. Also he gets the girl.
What I’ve read about, but wouldn’t have noticed on my own, and what makes this film all the more fascinating, is that it’s apparently a response to the 1952 film High Noon. In that film, Gary Cooper played a marshal who sought help from the townsfolk to defend against an outlaw who seeks revenge. While the outlaw’s gang awaits his arrival at the train depot, Cooper calmly, even awkwardly walks all over town asking for a helping hand or two, and at just about every stop he is turned away.
The story goes that this was an allegory for the Hollywood Blacklisting at the hands of Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. Cooper’s character stands his ground against unjust persecution and is turned away by those who would otherwise be his allies.
John Wayne was a far more conservative individual, and the John Wayne archetype didn’t need no damn help. Here he plays Sheriff John T. Chance, and he turns away those who would help him face off against the big bad. I mean, he does eventually receive help, and that leads to a second half that is mostly concerned with the camraderie between Chance, a drunk deputy named Dude (Dean Martin), a kid named Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and an old man, Stumpy (Walter Brennan).
It’s this second half which seems to have started a trend, that of an odd assortment of flawed individuals who must team up against a greater, violent force. They may not like each other, but they’re forced to, and all the time ahead of the battle allows them to bond before the action ensues.
If anything this is just kind of a nice hangout film, and there’s a good musical number in the middle too, a duet between Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin. It’s kind of an awkward moment because John Wayne just sort of stands to the side, and the camera understandably forgets about him until the singing ends, and we realize he was there all along.
Anyways, you have that on one hand, that this was a nice film with a storytelling device that would be repeated later (even by the director Howard Hawks himself, in El Dorado), and then you have that whole subtext, as a response to High Noon, which to be frank, I don’t quite see it. That’s because Chance does ask for some help and eventually receives it, but he makes a point of turning away help a few times, and Angie Dickinson’s character has one moment in which she frets about why she decided to help Chance when he definitely didn’t ask for it.
It’s all an effort, it seems, just to make the John Wayne character a macho dude. He doesn’t want or need any help, in fact he’s the one who helps everyone else out, but then he does receive help. And I don’t exactly see how this is so antithetical to High Noon except that Cooper’s character knows his limits, and Wayne’s character allegedly doesn’t have any.
If Wayne didn’t leave his feelings about High Noon on the record then I don’t think I would understand that this might be him saying something against that film. According to Roger Ebert Wayne once said:
“Think about it this way. Here’s a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains, fightin’ off Indians and drought and wild animals in order to settle down and make themselves a homestead. And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”
Rio Bravo seems much more concerned with the relationship between the four male protagonists than with anything else, subtext or otherwise. The most engaging aspects of the story have to deal with their evolving relationships.
The deputy, as played quite suavely by Dean Martin, is a pretty affable drunk, even if he’s meant to be more in line with the desperate type that Ray Milland played in The Lost Weekend (1945). Yes he’s broke and rarely sober when the film begins, but it’s Dean Martin, and he can’t help but be a little coy, seductive and then sh*t he proves his worth as a lawman early on. Later he will stumble, somewhat inevitably, just so that he can heroically make up for it in the end.
Martin’s pseudo rival is the young Colorado, a gunslinger who rides into town with a cocky attitude that impressed Duke Wayne who can’t help but admire the young lad. It also happens that Ricky Nelson resembles a younger Dean Martin, they both sing (in the film), and when Dude succumbs to a moment of doubt and throws down his badge, it’s Colorado whom Chance assigns to pick up the slack.
They are connected in so many ways, and there’s something… I guess kind of romantic about that. I mean that duet, holy sh*t, it’s quite good even if it does feel a little separated from the rest of the film. It’s pretty amusing the more I think about it that John Wayne just stands to the side, like he thought this was his film but it was really a story about these two singing cowboys all along, something something about passing the torch and passing gracefully into the next phase of your life.
So there’s plenty here to like, but it’s fascinating to me that this is considered a great film. It’s not that it’s not, just that the reasons certain films are great don’t seem immediately obvious to me. What I read about this film makes it great, but I suppose that’s the case with so many films. It’s hard to understand the context of every movie made, but it certainly makes them all the more fulfilling when you do.
Up Next: Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927), Transit (2018), Midsommar (2019)