Rio Bravo

Poster
1959
Howard Hawks

8/10 (cheesy and unrealistic, despite being made in response to a lack of realism)

This is much better than the only other John Wayne film I’ve ever seen (“The Searchers”), but it still only hovers on the border of greatness.

John Wayne and director Hawks were so offended by “High Noon” when it came out that they made this in response. The former, starring Gary Cooper, stands as an anti-McCarthyism allegory, with a sheriff trying to uphold the resurgence of his town after shipping out the main cause of all the problems, only to find the evildoer pardoned and on his way back for revenge. Cooper’s Sheriff Kane asks just about everyone for help, but even though they know it’s the right thing to do, they are afraid of any possible reprisals, so they leave him hanging.

Hawks is quoted as saying that he found it incredible that Kane would “go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help.” Moreover, he and Wayne were outraged that everyone abandoned the hero. So they made “Rio Bravo” in the name of realism, I suppose you could say.

Therein lies the main problem with “Rio Bravo”: for a film made to be more realistic than its predecessor, it is laughably unbelievable. The story involves Sheriff John T. Chance arresting a ne’er-do-well for cold-blooded murder and having to hold him with his two deputies (including “Dude,” played by Dean Martin) until the U.S. Marshall can come to take him away. Meanwhile, the scum’s rich landowning brother is paying anyone he can to try and spring the killer, and/or kill the sheriff/deputies in the process.

The difference with “High Noon” is readily apparent. Not only is Sheriff Chance not alone, but he actually turns down help if the offerers don’t seem good or dedicated enough. However, call me a communist sympathizer if you must, but I still find “High Noon” the much more realistic portrayal. It’s precisely because I find Kane’s scared sheriff and townsmen more believable than the bravado and superhuman integrity displayed by Wayne as he turns down two or three extra guns. I think that more of the sheriffs back then fit Gary Cooper’s mold than John Wayne’s.

Speaking of Wayne, I can officially proclaim — and perhaps prematurely, given that I’ve only seen two of his films — that I don’t get the fascination. He is by far the worst actor out of the appealing cast, and this role appears equal to the character he played in “Searchers.” In fact, I’m going to assume that he always plays the same role. He’s not particularly athletic, making his stunts and gunmanship all the less convincing, and on top of that he walks funny. I suppose that he’s revered for being so “tough,” and I’ll give him that one. But apart from toughness, I don’t see him as a particularly attractive leading man. How a man like that would attract a woman like the gorgeous Angie Dickinson. . . well, I already mentioned the film’s lack of realism.

Other elements in the incredibility of the film are many: the good guys never miss (including a hung over alcoholic suffering withdrawal being able to shoot through the reins of a horseman 10 feet away), and the bad guys always do. Five guys end up killing around twenty (in three or four separate fights) and arresting the remaining eight or so. None of the good guys are killed or even seriously wounded (including a crippled old man and a clownish Mexican hotelier, both of whom join in the climactic battle). By contrast, in “High Noon” Gary Cooper kills three, and his wife one. So what’s that you were saying about “realism,” Mr. Wayne and Mr. Hawks?

It’s a shame, because the film is compelling and highly enjoyable. The cinematography is good. The characters are memorable and well-developed. Typically for a Hawks film, the dialogue is great and the chemistry between the actors is electric (thanks in large part to Dean Martin, the enchanting Angie Dickenson, and the buffoonish Walter Brennan as the cripple). But despite all of these positives, it undeniably belongs to the cheesy “romantic western” genre. It’s unfair to judge it for this, because the western wasn’t revolutionized until “The Wild Bunch” a decade later, but it’s still disappointing from a modern vantage point.

To sum up, this is a captivating film that serves as a great introduction to John Wayne and to the romantic western genre in general. I recommend seeing it after “High Noon” so you can determine for yourself which story is more likely.

14 June 2010


Other Reviews for “Rio”

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