Published on March 18th, 1959 | by Padraic Coffey0
Rio Bravo (1959)
An adage on low-budget filmmaking, often attributed to the screenwriting guru Robert McKee, dictates that you “take twelve actors to a house and chop ’em up”. Though dismissive in its tone, several successful genre films have worked within this framework: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead; John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13; Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Another, perhaps less flippant way of referring to such pictures would be categorise them as ‘Siege Movies’; where characters remain in one indoor location, fending off malicious external forces. And the granddaddy of the ‘Siege Movie’ is Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Assault on Precinct 13 is considered by many to be a loose remake, while Tarantino regularly cites Rio Bravo among his all-time favourite films.
Seen today, however, the ‘siege’ aspect of Hawks’ film seems almost quaint. True, the central characters of John T. Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) are entrusted with detaining killer Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) in the eponymous town’s only jail, while facing hostility from Burdette’s associates. But they are also free to walk between the town’s hotel and saloon, and are really only captive in the last act of the film, at most. This is not to diminish Hawks’ film, but to distinguish it from later, more tense films like Assault, Dogs and Living Dead, and place it more in the tradition of grand Hollywood entertainments like Casablanca. From the glistening Warner Brothers logo and the unusually lengthy pre-title credits (in addition to Wayne, Martin and Brennan, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson and Ward Bond are all listed before the film’s title is shown), it is clear Rio Bravo is designed to appeal to more than just Western fans.
Between the film’s action, suspense and humour (mostly provided by Brennan), Hawks even finds time for a musical duet between Martin and Nelson which, though contrived in its nature, may be the film’s highpoint. Arguably less successful is the romance between Dickinson and Wayne, the almost quarter-of-a-century age gap between the two being slightly conspicuous. As in The Searchers, the most recent Western Wayne had starred in prior to Rio Bravo, the depiction of non-white characters could be interpreted as insensitive. In that film it was Native Americans; in Rio Bravo, it’s the Mexican hotel owners Carlos and Consuela, who are little more than minor comic foils and plot devices.
Hawks intention with Rio Bravo, however, seems not to be have been a treatise of the West a la Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but rather a rollicking good time for the audience. On that level, it can be said that he succeeds. Wayne’s role is one he could have sleepwalked through at that point in his career, yet John T. Chance, with an ubiquitous rifle, is still a compelling hero, his proclaimed self-sufficiency deliberately in contrast to Gary Cooper’s Sherriff in High Noon. Forty years before Jeff Bridges would forever become associated with the moniker ‘Dude’ in The Big Lebowski, Dean Martin is very impressive, somewhat surprisingly given Martin’s universal recognition as an singer first and actor second. Dude is that classic cinematic trope, an unreliable alcoholic who kicks his habit in time to redeem himself for the explosive finale. This stereotype was sent up in films like Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. If Rio Bravo is indeed a film ripe for parody in some respects, that should not detract from what remains splendid fun.