A man walks into a bar…
Howard Hawks begins Rio Bravo with a beautifully orchestrated silent sequence. Confidence and strength are palpable as the prolific and creative director goes back to his roots in silent film to start this highly regarded Western. A few moments of just music and visuals and I caught myself doing that cocked head gesture familiar of dogs as they look at something they seem interested in but can’t quite make out what they’re seeing.
I expected standard Western fare, my least favorite genre of film as I watched Rio Bravo for the first time in order to post this – my second entry to the Howard Hawks blogathon hosted by Seetimaar-Diary of a Movie Lover. But my expectations were wrong.
The “man” who walked into the bar to start the film is Dean Martin who plays Dude, the deputy of the small western town featured in the film. Dude was an ace gunslinger in days gone by, but after having his heart-broken by a women, has turned all his affections toward drink. He is fighting it but it’s a tough battle, made clear from the first instance as he walks into that bar in the very first scene clearly strung out. Very nearly broken.
In the bar he encounters Joe Burdette (played by Claude Akins) the bad guy who takes a look at Dude and with as much disgust as he can muster tosses a coin into the spittoon so the drunkard, nicknamed “Borachon,” would have to stick his hand into the muck if he wants a drink.
Humiliated but with little choice, given his desperate need, Dude gets down on his knees and just as he is about to reach into the spittoon, the jar is kicked over by a huge man, John T. Chance (John Wayne), the Sheriff. I have to add how striking a shot it is with which Hawks introduces Wayne in this film – shot from the perspective of the kneeling man looking up toward the overpowering figure, in this instance a father figure and throughout the film, a caretaker. Beautifully illustrated with one shot right at the beginning…
Frustrated, Dude lashes out at the Sheriff and goes after the evil Burdette even though he’s clearly outgunned as Burdette is surrounded by his evil posse. Just as another bar customer tries to step in to help Dude, Burdette grabs the man and shoots him dead. Leaving his posse to do the dirty work, Burdette walks out of that bar and into another where he is soon arrested by the Sheriff with the help of his deputy, Dude who, when necessary, shows signs of the great gunslinger he used to be.
The arrest of Joe Burdette, whose brother Nathan is a rich and powerful local bad guy sets the stage for the action in Rio Bravo as it takes all the guns at the Sheriff’s disposal to keep Joe in jail because the entire town is surrounded and infiltrated by Nathan’s men vying to get Joe out of jail. Unfortunately, the entire artillery at Chance’s disposal consists of “a pin-legged old man” named Stumpy, and a drunk (Dude).
In essence that is the entire plot of Rio Bravo, but Hawks compliments the standard Western story with a few wonderfully crafted character studies in subplots that focus on relationships. These are what make Rio Bravo a standout. My new favorite Western.
“Rio Bravo” (1959) was made because I didn’t like a picture called “High Noon” (1952). I saw “High Noon” at about the same time I saw another western picture, and we were talking about western pictures and they asked me if I liked it, and I said, “Not particularly”. I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff. I said that a good sheriff would turn around and say, “How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they’ve got?” The fellow would probably say no, and he’d say, “Well, then I’d just have to take care of you”. And that scene was in “Rio Bravo.”” – Howard Hawks
That quote made me very curious about Rio Bravo albeit with a hefty dose of skepticism. Fred Zinnemann’s, High Noon is not only my favorite of Gary Cooper’s films, but also one of my favorite Westerns. (Or was until Rio Bravo shashayed into my consciousness). Incidentally, Hawks was also not impressed with another of my favorite Westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s, The Wild Bunch saying of Peckinpah’s use of slow motion during the shoot-outs rather unbelievably, “I can kill three people and get them down to the morgue before he gets one down to the ground. Because…he accentuated everything using slow motion. I think violence is in the getting it over so fast that one hardly knows what just happened.”
In a direct response to how he felt about High Noon, Hawks makes what I perceive as the central theme of Rio Bravo the idea of whether people are “good enough.” And he does so in a not-so-subtle way as the line is repeated and the question posed at several key instances throughout the film. As a comparison, one should note that the Sheriff in High Noon looks for back-up as a means to fight the bad guys in whoever would lend a helping hand. And for the record, all that Hawks says about Noon makes sense. Conversely, what we see in John T. Chance, the sheriff in Rio Bravo, is a man with much higher standards. One who doesn’t settle.
Not good enough…
Passing through the threatened town one day is Chance’s old friend, Pat Wheeler (played by Ward Bond) who arrives with his posse and is surprised to find the Sheriff up to his neck in Burdette men (did that sound right? I’m not well-versed in Western lingo). Anyway, noting his friend’s troubles, Wheeler offers Chance his help. Chance, ever the pragmatist tells his friend he’s not good enough to help, that he’d only cause him more trouble by dying. Chance is not interested in any help, he wants quality. He even turns down his long-time friend.
Think you’re good enough?
Dude gets a chance at redemption. Just one chance, given the grave situation the town finds itself in. Although he still has personal battles ahead.
Dude and Chance are out one night scoping for bad guys, any sign of impending danger from the Burdette gang when a gunfight results. Dude “thinks” he sees one of Burdette’s men who shot at the Sheriff run into the saloon. Wanting and needing to prove himself Dude tells Chance he wants to be the one to go in and find the culprit, bring him to justice. Chance looks at him and asks, “you think you’re good enough?” – “I’d like to find out,” he says to which the Sheriff says, “so would I.”
When it’s done, a gripping and emotional encounter, the Sheriff says, “You were good in there tonight. Good as you’ve ever been.” The ultimate approval. But Dude would grapple with being up to par again, facing inner demons and severely shaky hands – a serious affliction for a deputy.
I must mention Stumpy here. Played by the brilliant, Walter Brennan, Stumpy is the pin-legged old man who takes care of the jail and watches over the prisoner, Joe Burdette like a Hawk. Given the “good enough” theme, it should be noted that throughout the film we see Stumpy’s just good enough for the role he’s given, which is important but severely limited. After all, he’s an old man with a pegleg who wouldn’t be able to go a round in an honest-to-goodness gunfight. There are several exchanges and a few hurt feelings along the way when anyone so much as eludes to the fact that Stumpy isn’t as important a part of the team as the others. But he turns out to be. And in the end that’s all that matters. Brennan’s depiction of Stumpy, by the way, is my favorite performance in the movie. I adore him – from the cackling laugh to the smart-ass remarks to the constant complaining. His role may be little more than that but I enjoyed every minute he’s on-screen.
So good you don’t have to prove it
Chance also uses the term, “good enough” as a sort of habit, as a response when someone tells him something he agrees with. No coincidence there. Not just small talk. Also, the fact that all of Burdette’s men are there for the money hints to their qualities – as men and as gunslingers. You do something for money then you have nothing to prove but make it to payday, it seems to me. You don’t have to be good enough. You just gotta survive and cash the gold coin.
Then you have the casting of Ricky Nelson as Colorado Ryan. A relative new-comer to Wheeler’s gang, Colorado defects to backing the Sheriff basically because he’s in the right place at the right time. Colorado never commits to anything but acts definitively when he acts. Chance admires him, the one character who, like Hawks to me, knows he’s so good he doesn’t have to prove it. And chance says so – exactly – when asked…
Dude: Wonder if he’s as good as Wheeler said?
John T. Chance: I’d say he is. (Pause) I’d say he’s so good, he doesn’t feel he has to prove it.
According to IMDB, Howard Hawks didn’t want to cast Ricky Nelson, whom he considered to be both too young and too lightweight, and deliberately gave him the fewest possible number of lines for a third-billed star. However, he later admitted that having Nelson’s name on the poster had probably added $2 million to the film’s box office performance. Reportedly, Hawks’ first choice was Elvis Presley, who was enthusiastic about the opportunity. Unfortunately, Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, wanted too much money and top billing. Yet another instance where Parker made a decision that could have changed Presley’s life. But, I’m letting my bitterness show – that’s a matter for another time.
As for Nelson, I’ll say that although he doesn’t have the wherewithal of a seasoned actor and it shows in Rio Bravo, his performance is good enough. He’s believable as a young man who respects authority, has the confidence of youth but knows not when to be worried or fearful – true traits of the very young.
“John Wayne represents more force, more power, than anybody else on the screen.” – Howard Hawks
To the point right before I watched Rio Bravo, John Ford’s, The Quiet Man was my favorite of John Wayne’s performances. Now this one stands as its equal in my book. I’m not generally a Wayne fan but there’s something special about his performance here that stands out and I think it’s the quiet. Note the title too of my previous favorite. Clearly, I prefer John Wayne when he doesn’t talk too much probably because he’s such an imposing figure I don’t think he needs to. His “quiet” in Rio Bravo brings a new Waynesian quality into all relationship dynamics in the film – for me. I am not in awe of this guy, I genuinely like him.
With regards to that – Howard Hawks mentioned in an interview that John Wayne asked him what he should be doing during all the scenes where Dude is suffering from the effects of alcoholism. During those scenes, which called for introspection on behalf of Martin, Wayne has fairly long periods where he doesn’t speak a word. Hawks told Wayne just to look at Martin, to remember he’s concerned and looking out for a friend (paraphrasing). Wayne does just that, carrying over the suggestion to other parts of the film with a look and a gesture where perhaps he was inclined to speak otherwise. It works, adding nuance to the power of the man, which, by the way, was purposefully emphasized by the film’s director by having the sets in Old Tucson built to 7/8th scale, so the performers look larger than life.
I attributed the “softness” that I see in John Wayne as John T. Chance to the fact that he speaks less. I mean, let’s be honest aside from the distinctive John Wayne delivery I am not particularly fond of, his is also a booming voice. But, noted in IMDB is this, “For most of the film Chance has the front of his hat turned up to make him look a little soft and friendly. However in the tough guy scenes when Chance informs Nathan Burdette that he will have Stumpy kill his brother if there is any trouble, the front of the hat is turned down, in traditional tough guy mode.” I have made a note that going forward I will look for the Wayne with the turned up hat!
John Wayne and Howard Hawks made five films together and the two truly admired each other. While listening to many interviews for a previous post I did on the director, Howard Hawks in his own words, I was surprised to learn many feel it was Hawks, not John Ford who made a superstar of John Wayne. While no one disputes John Wayne became a star in John Ford films, it was the roles in Hawks’ films that brought his image into the stratosphere.
Now is a good time for me to add a birthday mention to that super star. John Wayne would have celebrated his 106th birthday as I write this.
With respect to another theme that runs deep in many of Howard Hawks films, the idea of male bonding and long-standing friendships, Rio Bravo follows suit and goes further. The friendships here are familial as we see how the nucleus of a family is formed between Chance, Stumpy and Dude – as the former look after the latter just as members of a family look after each other. They even squabble like family and, true to all Hawksian characters, value loyalty above all else. A loyalty, by the way, that we share as the characters here also become our friends and Hawks’ rules of conduct, another of his trademarks, which they abide by become ours as well. They do the right thing because they care. There is a lot of sentimentality in this picture, a lot of heart, which brought forth another blossoming in Rio Bravo for me – as it depicts the best bromances I’ve seen in a film. Tarantino referred to Rio Bravo as one of the great hang-out movies and it is. A warm and cozy western.
There’s so much to say about Rio Bravo that I find myself side-stepping my points in my own mind all the time so I can’t imagine this is in any way easy to read, but I venture forth and (briefly) mention another subplot in the film, the relationship between John T. Chance and Feathers (played by Angie Dickinson). This relationship was the most difficult thing for me to believe in Rio Bravo. I simply had a hard time buying into a 26-year-old Angie Dickinson falling for the (I believe) 50-something John Wayne. According to IMDB, John Wayne was nervous about the love scenes between his character and Feathers in the film as well so I’m not the only one for whom this is a bit farfetched. I mean, I get it – he’s John Wayne. But still.
In any case, it is what it is and I do enjoy Dickinson’s performance as this film’s version of the Hawksian woman. Feathers is beautiful, sexy, flirtatious, tough, has somewhat of a shady past and, in the end, is “one of the guys.” I like her story arc as well – a mere passer by, for all intents and purposes, who gets involved with the Sheriff and the central action in the film.
Another supporting character I have to mention is Carlos Robante (played by Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) the owner of the local hotel. Carlos is good friends with the Sheriff and assists him in any way he can. The most entertaining bit about Carlos, who supplies some comic relief in the film, is his proclivity toward Spanglish double-talk as he tries to explain things to people. It’s very enjoyable – particularly if one understand both languages of his double-talk. Rio Bravo is Gonzalez’ most famous role.
At your leisure
Of all the elements I (unexpectedly) enjoyed in Rio Bravo, nothing was more surprising to me than the pace of the film. The slow, methodical, deliberate film is long, an exploration of character with long periods without action, rather than a typical shoot-em-up western. It’s refreshing for a film in the genre and unlike many of the Howard Hawks films I am familiar with – his comedies and crime films, which are fast in every sense. Here Hawks even includes scenes that are not necessary at all as is the case with the sing-a-long scene, which is valuable only in that it showcases the singing talents of both Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson but does absolutely nothing to further the story. Still, I love it – the lazy repose from, well, non action before the story picks up again.
The only time Hawks hurries along in Rio Bravo is whenever there is violence, which brings us back to his quote pertaining to what he didn’t like about The Wild Bunch. There’s one scene in particular that stands out…
Noticing the Sheriff is outside the hotel facing a bunch of bad guys all by himself, clearly outgunned, Colorado asks Feathers to throw a flower-pot out the window as a distraction when he gives her the signal. Colorado then moseys on out (note my use of a western term) onto the hotel porch and as the pot breaks the window at his signal he grabs Chance’s rifle tossing it to him as he shoots a bad guy at the same time. Within a second all the bad guys are dead. Beautifully choreographed. I think I rewound that seventeen times.
Aside from an occasional shootout, however, Rio Bravo is a film about inaction in many ways – the good guys defending against a threat in slow-motion, which is why I’m a bit perplexed as to why and how it’s so compelling a film to watch. It reminds me of a Hawks quote I included in my other post in which the director states he learned after making many films that if scenes are compelling, the film doesn’t necessarily have to make sense factually. That may well apply here in the sense that as a whole Rio Bravo doesn’t seem like a great film. Yet, I can hardly stop thinking about the many unforgettable scenes in it. In a period of a week and a half I’ve watched it three times. A first for me. For a western. My supposed least favorite genre of film. And I realize only Howard Hawks could have compelled me to do that. Only Hawks is good enough.
To read more about the films, life and career of Howard Hawks, please visit Seetimaar-Diary of a Movie Lover. The diversity of the Hawksian film guarantees a great read for everyone. I’m heading there myself – slowly prancing along the prairie.