Rio Bravo: How and Why John Wayne-Howard Hawks Western Became Cult Classic?

Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon may not be a great Western, but its place in film history is secure due to its being the direct reason for the making of an arguably great, cult Western, 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 familiar characters, the songs, the macho 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, led by the influential critic, Andrew Sarris.  You had to take a stand: You couldn’t like “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo.” But for other critics, “Rio Bravo” has been overrated by some zealous auterist 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 was aware of Nelson’s acting limitations and accorded him fewer 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.

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.

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 drunkenness, 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. However, the end restores Dude 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 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.