Rio Bravo: Howard Hawks-John Wayne Western and Cult Movie

Revisiting Rio Bravo, one of the best Westerns ever made, a collaboration of director Howard Hawks and John Wayne.

I am grateful to TCM for showing the film yesterday as part of celebrating star Angie Dickinson–Rio Bravo was her first big commercial success.


rio_bravo_wayne_posterFred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon may not be a great Western, as some critics claim, but its place in film history is secure. It served as the direct reason for the making of a great cult Western, seven years later, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Angie Dickinson, all in top form.

Disturbed by the acclaimed and popular Western “High Noon,” which portrayed Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) so afraid of his adversaries that he spends most of the movie asking town folks for help, only to be rejected by them, Hawks decided to make a movie that will respond more accurately to the dilemma faced by Kane.

The result is “Rio Bravo,” a leisurely-paced Western, set in a small Texas border town named Rio Bravo, which is under the control of evil cattle baron Nathan Burdette (John Russell), and his dim-witted brother Joe (Claude Akins).

When Akins commits a murder, sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne, at his best) throws him into jail to await the arrival of a U.S. Marshall. Later, when Nathan Burdette lays siege to the jailhouse, Chance is forced to rely on the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin), a cranky old man, Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and an untested young gunslinger, Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson).

The script, co-written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, is based on B.H. McCampbell’s story. The music is by Dimitri Tiomkin, who won an Oscar for “High Noon.” Russell Harlan’s cinematography serves the story in a functional, unadorned way.

Like a well-oiled machine, every element in “Rio Bravo” gels with the others: the seemingly simple plotline, the four main ;liable characters and the chemistry among the actors who play them, the tuneful songs, the macho humor, the relaxed tempo, the celebration of male camaraderie, all elements that resulted in a wonderfully entertaining American classic, which back in  1959 was embraced by all members of the family, just as the Golden Age (the studio era) was coming to an end.

In the 1960s, Rio Bravo became a case study and a cause celebre for the auteurist reviewers, led by the influential critic, Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice.  You had to take a stand: You couldn’t like “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo.” But the film had opponents who claimed that Rio Bravo has been overrated by zealous auterist critics who tend to underplay the film’s weaker points or even defend them as praiseworthy oddities.

rio_bravo_wayne_5To mention just one obvious weakness, the shy, awkward performance by rising pop star Ricky Nelson, who was cast on the basis of his popularity with (female) teenagers rather than acting skill. Hawks was aware of Nelson’s acting limitations and accorded him few lines, considering that he’s one of the central quartet. Nelson is often positioned in the background, alongside the other more prominent thespians; he’s seldom positioned center stage by himself.  But he benefits from likable screen presence, and later on from singing a song.

In contrast, the then newcomer starlet Angie Dickinson, as Feathers, is given much of the witty Hawksian dialogue and lavish treatment by camera. Feathers is a quintessentially Hawksian character, tough enough to stand up to any man who comes her way. Though Dickinson may not possess the perkiness of Jean Arthur or the sultriness (superficial) of Lauren Bacall, she’s more feminine and appealing than either star, not to mention her shapely legs, which give Marlene Dietrich a run for her money.

Walter Brennan, with three Supporting Actor Oscars to his credit and a fourth nomination (all in the short period of five years), is superb as the grouchy, occasionally nasty old man whose loyalty to his friends comes before anything else.

However, the real revelation is Dean Martin in a part that he obviously understood well from his real life, playing a drunken deputy who has to rise to the occasion and to redeem himself. As a singer-actor, he handles his part with skill and charm.

Models of Manliness and Masculinity

rio_bravo_wayne_3As in every Wayne picture (be it war film, action-adventure, or Western), to elevate his stature and manliness, he’s contrasted with a weaker man, down on their luck, often because of “women.” Rio Bravo draws contrast between Wayne’s sheriff and Dude’s Dean Martin, a former deputy marshal, who has become an alcoholic over the loss of his woman. Dude’s drunkenness, caused by an unhappy affair, is presented as a manifestation of unmanly behavior. (It is Wayne who pointed to Dude at that time that the woman was “no good”).

In the opening sequence, which is unusually long in its silence, Dude enters into a bar, desperate for a drink. A man tosses a coin for him to buy one, but it’s kicked out. John Wayne is then introduced as a superior moral figure, looking down disdainfully at the pathetic sight of Dude, willing to do anything to get a drink (which, of course, he doesn’t). One thing leads to another and Wayne is knocked off, only to be saved by Dude

In a later scene, Wayne’s Chance has to roll a cigarette for Dude, again showing weakness to take charge of his needs and wishes.

However, in the end, Dude is restored to sobriety, following Chance’s model of self-restraint and self-respect. He manages to pull himself together and get directly involved in the worthy action, just like the others.

Courtship and Romance

Wayne’s characteristic style of courtship and romance was displayed in several action and Western that have light romantic touches.  Apparently, it was Howard Hawks, realizing that Wayne’s youthful appearance was declining, who suggested that it was not appropriate for him anymore to chase young, naïve and attractive women.

In Rio Bravo, congruent to his previous conception of on screen women, Hawks makes the saloon girl, Feathers (Angie Dickinson) stronger and more aggressive character than is usually the norm for women’s roles in other westerns.  The director also decided that the romance between Chance and Feathers would be sort of a battle of words, by innuendo and implication, rather than through explicit eroticism.

Feathers features more prominently in the narrative of Rio Bravo than as just a romantic interest.  A stubborn woman, she guards Wayne when he is sleeping, without his knowledge.  Feathers helps him when he is caught unprepared by some of Bernadette’s (the villain) men.  She is constantly on alert, even when it seems she is relaxing or unaware of what is going on.

Father’s provocative manner makes her an ideal counterpart for Wayne’s aging sheriff Chance, a man who despite macho bravado is still shy and insecure in expressing his emotions openly.  It is Feathers who first kisses him, then observes, after a second try, “I’m glad we tried it a second time.  It’s better when two people do it.”  It takes Chance a while to admit that he is glad she stays in town.

Self-assurance and unimpressed, Feathers says, “I’m hard to get, John T.  You’re gonna have to say you want me.”  Which, of course, makes it harder for him to do.  However, when Feathers wears a sexy dress, ready to go to the saloon, Chance says, “you’d better not.”  Asked for a reason, he replies, “you wear those things and I’ll arrest you.”

So delighted to hear that she bursts out crying, then turns back, “I thought you were never going to say it.”  “Say what?” asks Chance.  “That you love me,” she replies.  “I said I’d arrest you,” Chance repeats.  But to Feather, “It means the same thing.  You know that, you just won’t say it.”

rio_bravo_wayne_5There has been a debate over the attributes of the Hawksian heroine.   Some critics suggest that Hawks’ screen women boast more aggression and independence than what was the norm for women in American films of the 1950s.  They claim that Feathers in ”Rio Bravo” is not just a pretty saloon girl, but a strong and intelligent woman who affects Chance’s behavior as much—perhaps even more–than he influences hers.   (In another Hawks’ cult adventure, “Hatari!” the photographer Dallas is doing a man’s job in a risky setting.)


However, a counter, more conservative interpretation of the female roles could be offered.  Feathers is still earning her living as an entertainer, a traditional female profession.  More significantly, the ambition of most women in Hawks’ films is to gain acceptance into what is essentially a men’s world, and the most efficient way to be integrated is to prove their worth is to imitate the behavior of their male counterparts.

Dimitri Tiomkin Musical Score

The musical score was composed by the famous composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who ironically had won an Oscar for Zinnemann’s 1952 Western High Noon. Tiomkin’s score includes the hauntingly ominous “El Degüello” theme, which is heard throughout the film.

Colorado identifies the tune as “The Cutthroat Song,” since this song was played on the orders of General Antonio López de Santa Anna to the Texans holed up in the Alamo, to signify that no quarter would be given to them.  Wayne then makes sure that the viewers get the message by stating that the song means “no mercy for the losers.”

The tune was used in 1960 over the opening credits of  the John Wayne directed film, The Alamo, which was nominated for Best Picture Oscar.

Years later, Composer Ennio Morricone recalled that Italian director Sergio Leone asked him to write sort of “Dimitri Tiomkin music” for A Fistful of Dollars, his Western starring Clint Eastwood. Indeed, the trumpet theme in that film is similar to Tiomkin’s “Degüello” Incidentally, the Italian title of Rio Bravo is Un dollaro d’onore, A Dollar of Honor.

Since the film starred a legendary singer, Dean Martin, and a teen idol, Ricky Nelson, Hawks decided to include three songs in the soundtrack.  The placement of the songs in the narrative is significant.  The first one occurs just before the big showdown, in the jail house, when Dean Martin sings “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” (which contained new lyrics to a Tiomkin tune that had appeared in Hawks 1948 Western, Red River) accompanied by Nelson.  After that, Nelson sings a brief version of “Get Along Home, Cindy,” accompanied by Martin and Brennan.

And at the end, over the closing credits, Martin, backed by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, sings an specially composed song, “Rio Bravo”, written by Tiomkin with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. Ricky Nelson later paid homage to both the film and his character, Colorado, by including the song “Restless Kid” on his 1959 LP, Ricky Sings Again.

Hawks as Auteur: Thematic Continuity

Rio Bravo displays what has become Hawk’s most consistent motif: a group of professionals (mostly white male) who form a substitute family. In this film, the clique consists of divergent members, in terms of age, ability, and experience, but facing crisis, they overcome their individual differences and rally collectively behind their strong and proud leader, played by Wayne in one of his most relaxed and smooth performances.

The four members share affection and understanding for one another as do close family members who are not afraid to speak truthfully for fear of hurting each other’s feelings. That except for Wayne’s Chance, there are no women in their lives, may pose some problems, but the Western genre is notorious.

Sequels or Remakes

“Rio Bravo” was so successful commercially (it was on 1959’s top-grossing films) that Hawks later used two variations of the story, with similar character types, similar situations, and even the same sets, in his last two Westerns, “El Dorado” in 1967 and “Rio Lobo” in 1970, all co-written by Leigh Brackett.

Many historians (including me) consider the films as some sort of an informal trilogy, though they are divergent in quality and effect; they become successively weaker, a result of the familiarity with the narrative and also Hawks’ increasing age and laziness.

Though Hawks was inspired to make “Rio Bravo” as rebuttal to “High Noon,” it’s his daughter, Barbara Hawks McCampbell, an aspiring writer, who came up with the basic plotline that later became the film’s climax, outlaws holed up in a house, while the heroes explode sticks of dynamite by shooting them like clay targets. Good father Hawks made sure that Barbara was paid and given credit for story.

John Carpenter’s second feature, “Assault on Precinct 13,” is an updated remake of “Rio Bravo,” and Carpenter himself remade his own remake once more.

In interviews, Quentin Tarantino has singled out “Rio Bravo” as one of his three most favorite and influential movies, paying tribute to Hawks and his characters in “From Dusk to Dawn,” which he wrote and Robert Rodriguez directed.