Rio Bravo: John Wayne’s Style of Courtship and Romance (with Angie Dickinson)

John Wayne’s characteristic style of courtship and romance was displayed in several actioner and Western movies that also contained light romantic touches.

Apparently, it was director Howard Hawks, realizing that Wayne’s youthful appearance was declining, who suggested that it was not appropriate for him anymore to chase very young women.

Even so, in “Rio Bravo,” congruent to his previous conception of screen women, Hawks makes the saloon girl, Feathers (Angie Dickinson, half of the Duke’s age) stronger and more aggressive character than is usually the norm for women’s roles in the western genre.

The director also decided that the romance between them would be sort of a battle of words, by innuendo and implication, rather than through explicit eroticism or blunt dialogue.

Indeed, Dickinson’s 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. 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.”

Delighted and crying, Feathers 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.”

There 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 muchperhaps 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 feamle 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 a male’s world, and the most efficient way to be integrated is to prove their worth is by imitating the behavior of their male counterparts.