Rio Bravo (1959): Howard Hawks–John Wayne Brilliant Western, Co-Starring Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan

No matter what you think of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) in terms of film history, it’s directly responsible to the making of anther cult Western, Rio Bravo (1959), one of the genre’s best Westerns and a highlight of both director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne .

Indeed, 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 relatively quiet, leisurely-paced Western, set in a small Texas border town named Rio Bravo, which now 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) throws him into jail to await the arrival of a U.S. Marshall. Nathan Burdette lays siege to the jailhouse and 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 by Dimitri Tiomkin, who had won an Oscar for “High Noon,” and great photography, which serves the story in an unadorned way, is provided by Russell Harlan

Every element in Rio Bravo jells with the others: the seemingly simple plotline, familiar characters, songs, and frequent humor, resulting in a wonderfully entertaining American classic that in 1959 was embraced by all members of the family.

In the 1960s, “Rio Bravo” became a case study and a cause celebre for the auteurist critics. You couldn’t like both “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo.”

“Rio Bravo” has been overrated by some zealous auteurist critics who tend to underplay the film’s weaker points or even defend them as praiseworthy oddities.

To 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 knew Nelson’s acting limitations and accorded him fewer considering that he’s one of the quartet. Nelson is often positioned in the background, alongside the other more prominent thespians; he’s seldom given center stage alone.

In contrast, newcomer starlet Angie Dickinson, as Feathers, is given all the Hawksian dialogue and lavish camera, and her character is quintessential Hawksian, 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 giving Marlene Dietrich a run for her money.

Walter Brennan, with three Supporting Oscars to his credit and a fourth nomination (all in 5 years), is superb as the grouchy, 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.

As 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 Dean Martin, a former deputy marshal, who has become an alcoholic over the loss of his woman. Dude’s drinking problem, caused by an unhappy affair, is presented as unmanly behavior.

In the opening sequence, Chance is astride a horse, looking down disdainfully at the pathetic sight of Dude, willing to do anything to get a drink (which, of course, he doesn’t). In a later scene, Chance has to roll a cigarette for Dude. By the end, however, Dude is restored to sobriety, following Chance’s model of self-restraint and self-respect, getting involved in the worthy action just like the other.

Thematic continuity

“Rio Bravo” displays what has become Hawks’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

Hawks’ Sequels or Remakes

“Rio Bravo” was so successful commercially (it was on 1959’s ten 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 three films as composing some sort of an informal trilogy, though they are divergent in artistic quality and overall effect. In fact, they become successively weaker, a possible result of the viewers’ familiarity with the basic narrative and also of Hawkes’ 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 Barbara was paid and given credit for story.

History Alert

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

In interviews, Tarantino has singled out “Rio Bravo” as one of his three favorite and influential movies, paying tribute to Hawks and his characters in the “From Dusk to Dawn” films, co-made with Robert Rodriguez.

John Wayne and Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo

John Wayne as John T. Chance
Dean Martin as Dude
Ricky Nelson as Colorado Ryan
Angie Dickinson as Feathers
Walter Brennan as Stumpy
Ward Bond as Pat Wheeler
John Russell as Nathan Burdette
Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Carlos Robante
Estelita Rodriguez as Consuelo Robante
Claude Akins as Joe BurdetteMalcolm Atterbury and Harry Carey Jr. get screen credits in the opening, but their scenes were deleted from the final film.


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