Has there ever been a movie that more effectively utilized a ‘cold opening’ better than Rio Bravo? We start with a dark and murky but still well crowded bar, a down on his luck and desperately drunk Deputy and a smug Gunman who first jokingly offers the Deputy a drink, and then tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for him on the floor. These are the first images we witness in this classic Howard Hawk’s western released all the way back in 1959. The Deputy, played here in a show stealing performance by Dean Martin, drops any shred of his personal dignity and then drops to his knees to go diving into the spittoon for that much needed whiskey money, only to have the spittoon kicked away by the great big boot of the town Sheriff, played here by the one and only John Wayne. The look of parental shame and disgust on Wayne’s face as he stares down at the pathetic Martin is truly palpable. The deeply embarrassed Deputy explodes in a fit of rage, striking the Sheriff on the head with a club and knocking him out cold. Then after enduring the mocking laughter of the Gunman and his friends one too many times, he blindly charges at him as well, unknowingly setting up the course of events that will be the main focus of the rest of ‘Rio Bravo’.
The Gunman’s friends intervene and the Deputy is given a harsh beating. When an unknown Good Samaritan tries to grab the Gunman’s arm, he is quickly shot and killed for his trouble. The Gunman, now a murderer, takes off across the street to another saloon where he feels he will be safer. The bloody and battered Sheriff recovers from the blow delivered to him by his own Deputy and then proceeds down to the other saloon where he promptly arrests the Gunman for the murder of the innocent bystander. When one of the Gunman’s friends attempt to interfere, the Deputy, who has also regained his composure and sobered up somewhat, shoots the gun out of his hand, and the Deputy and the Sheriff drag the Gunman out of the saloon and off to jail. This entire classic opening sequence that takes up about the first five minutes of the film is done without a single bit of dialogue, and it is but the first of many great scenes to follow.
That Gunman’s given name is Joe Burdett (Claude Akins), and he also happens to be the younger brother of the powerful local rancher and notorious gang leader, Nathan Burdett (John Russell). Arresting Joe puts Sheriff John T. Chance, and his deputy, known only as ‘Dude’ as well the entire town of Rio Bravo in grave jeopardy. We are told that Joe’s brother Nathan has all the wealth and the resources, not to mention the willpower to wage an all out war in order to see that Joe does not hang for his crime. A gang of ruthless cut throats pour into Rio Bravo and effectively bottle up the town, ensuring no one gets in or out to aid the Sheriff, who’s only help comes in the form of the aforementioned drunken deputy, that the locals have taken to calling Borrachón (Spanish for worthless drunk) and his other, mostly jail bound deputy, known as ‘Stumpy’ (Walter Brennan), an elderly codger with a pronounced limp and a pension for cackling wildly at the slightest provocation, and who carries a dangerous looking sawed off double barrel shotgun. Other people try to help Chance, including his longtime friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), the leader of a large group of cowboys just passing through town at the beginning of this mess, but Chance refuses them all flatly, as he does not want amateurs mixed up in this fight, as that would only give Burdett’s men “more targets to shoot at” he says.
There is a young kid in Wheeler’s outfit named Colorado, played by the teenage television idol Ricky Nelson, who is deemed good enough to join the fight, but he, wisely in Chance, Dude’s and Stumpy’s estimation, chooses to mind his own business instead. “He ain’t like the usual kid with a gun?” Stumpy inserts. Without his or practically any worthwhile help in sight, the situation appears quite hopeless to say the least. There is also a girl, of course, called ‘Feathers’ played by Angie Dickinson new to town and fresh off the stagecoach. She is a beautiful young widow and card shark with a wanted poster following her around on account of her late husband who himself was killed after being caught cheating at poker. She has the bad luck of getting mixed up with the Sheriff at the worst possible time in his life, but you get the sense this is the kind of girl that without bad luck, she would have no luck at all. And so with that, we have our main plotlines for the movie set in place. Can Chance and his rag tag group possibly stand up against the overwhelming odds stacked against them? Will Dude be able to sober up long enough to be a useful player in this fight, or will he crack under the intense pressure? What will become of the girl, Feathers who finds herself trapped in the middle of all this? Even in a review as spoilery as this one, I do not dare reveal the answers to questions such as these, although you get no points for being able to figure it all out for yourself either. This is a John Wayne movie, after all.
From the above plot description you may think that this would be a bleak and tense movie, but nothing could be further from the truth. There is plenty of tension and moments of high drama, to be sure, but that’s all beside the point. This movie jovially ambles through its storylines, stopping at times for bits of comedy, romance, and even a musical interlude. It’s the kind of classic Western that they don’t, and very sadly aren’t going to be making anymore, one where the gunplay and violence is more window dressing than being the main attraction as with most modern westerns. This is one of those movies that I first saw as a very young kid, either with my father or my grandfather at my side. Both of them were, of course, huge John Wayne fans, as I myself also came to be, but even if you are not such a person and are going to make exceptions to see very few John Wayne movies in your lifetime, this one definitely belongs on the list, although for different reasons, alongside The Searchers, Red River, and The Quiet Man. I have watched this movie countless times in my life since then, and when I say countless, I truly mean that it is beyond my ability to add up the number of times I’ve chosen to pop this in the old DVD player on a rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It plays like an old familiar song or record album at this point. There is not a false note in it, and nearly every single scene has a fond memory in it somewhere. Every scene moves at just the right pace too. The movie’s two hour and twenty-one minute running time flow by like a lazy old river on a hot sunny day, not too fast or too slow but just right. You hate to see it go when it’s over, but you know it will always be there like an old trusty friend the next time you watch it. This familiarity is the essence of what makes Rio Bravo such a rite of passage as a western. If one day I should ever have a son, we will definitely be watching this film together at some point in his young life.
At the time of Rio Bravo’s filming, Howard Hawks had not directed a movie in almost five years. He was in a self imposed cinematic exile after the dismal commercial and critical failure of his last movie, his final William Faulkner collaboration, the swashbuckling ‘Land of the Pharaohs’ in 1955. John Wayne had not made a western in about four years himself, his last one being the incredible John Ford picture ‘The Searchers’, which to many is thought to be perhaps the greatest western ever made, and one of the greatest films in general as well. Since then he had been plugging along in some less than stellar films such as the Howard Hughes flop ‘Jet Pilot’ (generally considered to be one of his worst films ever) and the forgettable genre mismatches ‘Legend of the Lost’ and ‘The Barbarian and The Geisha’. So then when both Wayne and Hawks, the two veteran icons of Hollywood needed to make a true return to form, what else could they have possibly chose besides a western? John Wayne, although perhaps best known for his John Ford films, owes a great deal of his success to Howard Hawks. Without Howard Hawks, John Wayne would never have gotten the chance at the lead in The Searchers, as Hawks, the great visionary director was one of the very few in Hollywood to push John Wayne to act beyond his familiar persona in ‘Red River’ (one of Wayne’s finest and most fierce acting performances ever), which then lead John Ford to take notice that this guy, along with having an amazing screen presence, could actually act as well, despite popular misnomers about him. But Rio Bravo is not the same kind of movie as Red River or The Searchers to be sure. The John Wayne here is not the menacing, brooding creature from those films, but is basically the same slow talking, strong, and stoic type that he would more or less play with few exceptions for the rest of his career.
‘High Noon’ starring the iconic Gary Cooper, ranks right up there with the aforementioned ‘The Searchers’ with most critics, and is generally considered to be one of the best westerns ever filmed, a fact that stuck in the crawl of both John Wayne and Howard Hawks who both intensely disliked that picture and the perceived anti-American message it conveyed. In High Noon the Gary Cooper sheriff character has to face down three bad men who are coming to town on a train to gun him down. During the course of that movie Cooper’s character seeks help from just about everyone in town, only to be turned town by the, understandably, fearful town’s people. In the end he (with the help of his wife) overcomes his fear and faces down the three outlaws in the final climactic gun battle of that film. Contrast that with Rio Bravo, where the John Wayne character, facing odds that make Cooper’s plight look like a walk in the park, consistently turns down help from the people in his town, as said above, not wanting the burden of having people he feels aren’t good enough involved in a fight they aren’t prepared for, although in this movie’s final climactic gun battle, most of those people will find a way to get involved anyway.
Hawks and Wayne felt that Gary Cooper’s character in High Noon was all wrong as a western hero, and so they set out to make a deliberate antithesis to both him and that movie with Rio Bravo. Of course, John Wayne is not going to go begging his own town’s people for help, regardless of the odds against him. There is no moment of self doubt with Wayne as there is with Cooper, because the John T. Chance character is the quintessential western hero, and not, as Cooper’s character an actual layered human being subject to weaknesses such as self pity and self doubt. I have not seen High Noon as many times as I have Rio Bravo, although I did like it very much when I did see it. But I think, while I might side with Gary Cooper and his more grounded and realistic approach philosophically, there is little doubt that cinematically it is much more entertaining to just sit back and watch John Wayne be John Wayne.
The town of Rio Bravo here is a very deserted one. I feel like I know it well enough to walk its streets blindfolded, even though of course, I’ve never been there myself. The familiarity I have with it is probably helped by the fact that the town of Rio Bravo is played by the studio western town of Old Tucson, Arizona, which has been featured in literally dozens upon dozens of westerns throughout the years (including the original 3:10 to Yuma, Tombstone, & Young Guns II to name just a few) both before and after this one was filmed there. We meet very few residents of Rio Bravo itself. There is a Chinese undertaker, a Mexican Hotel owner and his wife, and a few other stragglers here and there, most of whom seem to be just passing through like Wheeler or the girl from the stage coach. Everyone else apparently lives with the shades permanently drawn. So basically everyone who is not a major player is either a purely one dimensional racial stereotype such as the fast talking Hotel owner Carlos, or just an unspeaking extra, which, aside from the numerous bad guys in Burdett’s gang, and the people who populate the various saloons, there aren’t an awful lot of featured in Rio Bravo.
I found that the sparse setting and scattered population greatly added to the tension and drama of the movie, and made the leading characters played by John Wayne and Dean Martin stand out all the more in contrast to the emptied out background, since there was nothing else there to take the focus off of them. The racial stereotypes in this movie, which do not make up a huge part of the film, will most likely be offensive to modern audiences. But again, this movie is a product of 1959 America, which while not a defense of the stereotyping, to me, is still a satisfactory explanation for it. Compared to other movies of the period, it’s hardly noticeable and never done mean spiritedly, but just in that off handed way that things used to be accepted as back in the day such as referring to the Chinese character as a ‘Chinaman’ and other things that would get you an R rating today.
Rio Bravo is a true western in the sense that everyone in it wears cowboy hats, and there are horses, gunfights and all the usual things you’d associate with the genre, but at its heart this movie is really an amiable comedic conversation piece. The trio of Walter Brennan, John Wayne, and Dean Martin exist as kind of an odd sitcom like family inside their domestic jailhouse home setting, with Wayne playing the father figure, Brennan the nagging maternal figure, and Martin the rebellious child who worries them both to death caught in between. It is one of the real joys of the movie to just sit back and watch the great chemistry that these three have together in their scenes. The dialogue is always crisp and sharp, and whether they are hooting and hollering at one another in of the many comedic set pieces throughout the film or just quietly enjoying each other’s presence, there is never a dull moment between them, and every second they are together is completely engrossing. Walter Brennan here is a comedic gem as the cantankerous old character of Stumpy, but when it comes time to get serious he is able to bring the goods as believably as anyone, such as the scene where he has to convince Nathan Burdett that he will not hesitate to blow his brother in half with his shotgun should he attempt to try anything funny to get him out of jail. Nothing more needs to be said about John Wayne, who gives one of the most natural and easy going performances of his career here. The real surprise of this movie and one of the big reasons to seek it out though, is the captivating against type performance of the crooner and comedian, Dean Martin as Dude.
This movie to me definitely represents the high water mark in the acting career of Dean Martin. His portrayal of the helpless, filthy, alcohol dependant deputy is just so startlingly good that it, as said above, steals the show here. Much credit must be given to Howard Hawks who took a chance on Martin here. During Martin’s audition, when he found that he was going to play a drunk, he, as instructed, went into the costume closet and came out with a shiny and spiffy looking gunfighter costume like you’d expect to see in your standard Roy Rogers flick. Hawks harshly critiqued his choice, telling him he didn’t want Dean Martin the Hollywood star here, but a real down and dirty and hopeless drunk. Martin, to his credit, got the message and came out with the signature filthy apparel he would wear for the rest of the movie. He was of course, best known before this for his music, and for his partnership with comedian Jerry Lewis, and had made several formulaic slapstick comedy movies with him, but after that pairing split up, he set out to show that he had the chops to make it as a serious dramatic actor.
Before this movie Dean Martin had been building up a solid resume of films with great turns in pictures like the World War II epic ‘the Young Lions’ and the cool never-without-his-hat gambling character in ‘Some Came Running’. After this movie though Martin sadly would never realize his potential as a serious actor, pigeon holing himself mostly in watered down paint by numbers kind of movies with his Rat Pack buddies Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., which aside from the memorable original version of Ocean’s 11, were mostly completely forgettable. His only real high points for me after this were in the handful of westerns he did throughout the 60s and early 70s such as his reunion with John Wayne in ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’ where the two of them were oddly cast as brothers, or his pairings with Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum in ‘Bandoleros’ and ‘Five Card Stud’ respectively, although none of those movies, or those performances can even hold a torch to what he achieved here as Dude, in Rio Bravo.
Angie Dickinson plays the classic Howard Hawk’s girl here, always verbally jousting with her male counterpart. Her relationship with John Wayne comes off as very sweet and touching here, even though the age difference between them at the time in real life was quite alarming. Of course, any sexuality between the two of them is merely implied, as again, this is the 1950s we are talking about here. Still, even in this repressed climate Dickinson’s natural sexiness and beauty shines through without any hindrance whatsoever. It’s definitely easy to see why she was a major sex symbol of her era, right up there with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, to which I’d take her over them any day of the week, since I always preferred redheads myself. (Which I guess means I am not a gentleman I suppose) Much of the dialogue between her and John Wayne is lifted almost directly from the dialogue of a previous Howard Hawk’s film ‘To Have and Have Not’ starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Note the scene where she and John Wayne kiss for the second time, after she earlier forced herself on him, and she utters the line “It’s better when two people do it…” which is a direct take off on Bacall’s line in ‘To Have and Have Not’ where she said to Bogart “It’s even better when you help…”
While the guys got Angie Dickinson, the young women were treated to teenage idol Ricky Nelson, the son of “Ozzie and Harriet” who grew up in front of the entire country on their Television screens, and who at the time of this movie’s release was neck and neck with a young Elvis Presley for being the chief ambassador of early commercial Rock N’ Roll music in this country. Nelson is noticeably awkward, shaky, and nervous in his performance here, but with good direction and the help provided him from the many great actors here he manages to get through this movie with a respectable, if somewhat fidgety performance in his own right. You can tell whenever he is really nervous on screen with the ‘tell’ he has of rubbing his nose with one lone finger.
Music plays an especially huge part in Rio Bravo. Two of the movie’s chief stars in Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, as mentioned earlier were major music stars of the time, and the scene, which some love and some hate (although those people are no friends of mine) where Nelson, Martin, and Brennan hunker down in the jailhouse before the big showdown and just have themselves a good old jam session is one of, if not the most famous scene in the entire movie, and for me one of the most enjoyable as well. That musical interlude, completely disconnected from the rest of the film is a perfect example of why a movie like this could simply not be made today. Aside from that though, the musical score of this movie is classic in its own right, and used to perfection throughout the film. You could even say that score is in itself a major character in this film. “El Degüello” as it is known, is the music being constantly played by the band holed up in the Burdett saloon. It haunts both the movie and the characters in it. The Colorado character explains its back-story to Chance, Dude, and Stumpy as being the ‘Cut Throat Song’ which General Santa Ana ordered to be played for the tragic doomed souls who were slaughtered at The Alamo. The message of course is clear, no quarter is to be given, or expected in return. John Wayne would go on to direct his own version of the story of the Alamo the year after this movie in 1960 and this same music of course, appears again there in that film.
The ritual of the western is completed in Rio Bravo, as it is in all classic westerns with a big wild shootout placed at the end of the movie. Bullets fly and sticks of dynamite are set off, and we are even treated to a fist fight in which the final redemption of the Dean Martin character is to be determined. This is not the graphic bloody realistic kind of gunfight you would see in a modern movie of course, but the kind of campy gun fight where people are shot and then quickly move their hands to cover up the spot where the wound is supposed to be before collapsing dramatically on the ground in a manner that no person who has actually been shot has ever done in real life. That’s part of the fun and escapism that used to be the movies though. I wouldn’t mind a return to this, even though I know it is impossible nowadays in the age of countless blood squibs and limbs being torn off for sheer entertainment value, not that I myself don’t enjoy that every now and then, but it’s nice still to just return to this kind of movie after getting oversaturated on that kind of stuff every once and a while.
This movie was so good that it inspired literally dozens of imitators over the years. John Carpenter’s ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ is an admitted take off of Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks himself would go on to remake this movie two more times, both with John Wayne playing the same role he played here, just with different names, in 1967’s ‘El Dorado’ with Robert Mitchum starring in the Dean Martin role as the drunken sidekick and again in 1970’s ‘Rio Lobo’ with Jack Elam in the Walter Brennan role of the old codger. Each of these movies re-told the exact same story, just with different names as said. You always had the ornery old codger, the independent female love interest, the young kid gunslinger, and of course, the big final gun battle at the end with the bad guys to wrap everything up all nice and neat. Why mess with perfection? That being said, none of those movies had that magical special quality that this one had in spades. A good bit of that has to be attributed to the great script written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (whose credits also include The Empire Strikes Back for Pete’s sake.) that so perfectly structured this story and crafted the great dialogue here.
As said above, this movie is one of my all time favorites. I doubt that I will ever tire of watching it. For both its general quality and for the personal memories I have of watching it as a young child, it will most likely always remain in my personal top five movies of all time. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough, which you can probably tell from this gargantuan review here. If you can find it, I really recommend the two-disc special edition DVD of this movie released a few years ago. It comes with a full length feature commentary with John Carpenter, some nice other features, and my favorite part, a full sleeve of glossy eight by ten black and white photographs taken from the set. I was just looking through them while in the process of writing this review, and made a mental note to put in here somewhere to recommend that particular special edition version of the DVD, as they really did a terrific service both aesthetically and substantially to this, great, great movie. On a side note, this is also one of the favorite movies of director Quentin Tarintino. He once said when he is getting serious with a girl, he shows her Rio Bravo “And she better f’n like it.” I completely understand where he is coming from. That’s all for this review, thanks as always for reading, and I’ll see you all again next time.
Rio Bravo gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.
Professional freelance writer, who also writes blogs, reviews, and assorted nonsense at https://www.vortexeffect.net
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