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  • Post last modified:08/05/2022

Rio Bravo: A Sheriff Takes a Chance


John Wayne and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez. Photo: Warner

John Wayne was not a fan of High Noon (1952) for purely political reasons. In his view, that film celebrated collectivism, having Gary Cooper’s sheriff come looking for help among the reluctant townsfolk, when in fact it took one great leader to get things done. That’s how Wayne saw it, and that’s why he made Rio Bravo, playing a sheriff who certainly didn’t need the people of his town to help him fight the bad guys. Some have read a lot of different things into High Noon, and if John Wayne saw Rio Bravo as its antithesis… well, that’s his problem. This movie is brilliant entertainment, but certainly not for political reasons. 

A brawl that ends in murder
In the small town of Rio Bravo, Texas, the former sheriff’s deputy Dude (Dean Martin) has become a drunk and is humiliated by Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), brother of a powerful rancher. The encounter turns into a brawl where sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) intervenes – and it ends with Joe murdering an innocent bystander and being arrested by John. Joe is taken to the local jail where he’s put under supervision of John’s old trustee, Stumpy (Walter Brennan). It soon becomes clear that Joe’s brother and his men intend to break him free, and John finds that he’s got plenty on his plate. Not only does he need to defend his prison and authority, but he doesn’t know if Dude can be trusted enough to serve as his deputy again. 

There are also two newcomers in town that catch John’s attention – an attractive woman (Angie Dickinson) with a dark past, and a young gunslinger (Ricky Nelson). 

Irresistibly lackadaisical
One of the best movies John Wayne made in the later half of his career was also a highlight for director Howard Hawks. This was the first Western that the two of them did together after the classic Red River (1948), but it differs. This one is more tongue-in-cheek. The director became famous for his no-nonsense attitude toward telling a story, but there’s something irresistibly lackadaisical to his approach here. We have Wayne playing an archetypal hero facing perhaps the greatest challenge of his life. But do we ever actually see him break a sweat? Not really. It doesn’t happen when he’s pushed by a woman he fancies, and it doesn’t happen when bullets are flying past his head. We also have Martin playing a drunk battling his demons (how’s that for irony?), but also finding time to sing a little, especially in one charming scene where the song “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” is performed. 

Brennan does his expected curmudgeon shtick, and Dickinson works her sex appeal as a girl who claims to have been around but still somehow falls in love with a stubborn bachelor 30 years her senior after spending five minutes with him. Nelson may play a young gunfighter, but it’s obvious that he’s here primarily to promote his career as a singer and teen idol. 

The director makes sure that the film moves fast in spite of its running time.

And yet, in spite of all this silliness, Hawks works real tension into the story. We don’t know how the sheriff intends to actually survive the time it will take for federal marshals to reach Rio Bravo, and the director makes sure that the film moves fast in spite of its running time; action scenes appear as skillfully planned as if they followed a clock. 

There is so much fun in watching this movie. How Wayne could see it as a political exercise is beyond me. But if that’s how he wants Rio Bravo to be remembered, allow me to point out a flaw in his reasoning. Sheriff John T. Chance could never have survived this story without the help of more or less everyone else in the cast. It certainly takes a village to save the day in this case.

Rio Bravo 1959-U.S. 141 min. Color. Produced and directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthmann. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Song: “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” (Dimitri Tiomkin, Paul Francis Webster). Cast: John Wayne (John T. Chance), Dean Martin (Dude), Ricky Nelson (Colorado Ryan), Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond.

Trivia: Followed by El Dorado (1967) and remade as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

Last word: “I had fun when we wrote Rio BravoMy daughter was getting interested, and she had one good idea about throwing dynamite. I said, ‘Look, I’ll write the story and give you a credit and it’ll save me money on income tax and you’ll get enough to buy a new house.’ So she’s listed as the [story] writer. […] I used to work with a kid who was beginning writing, and pay him five or ten thousand dollars for the writing, and I’d rewrite it myself. And if it was something I didn’t want to do, I’d sell it. I could charge off the guy, I didn’t get credit for being a writer and you could charge those things off.” (Hawks, Parallax View)

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