Rio Bravo (1959)

Dir. Howard Hawks. Starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson

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Westerns are, as a general rule, as formulaic and reliable as any movie genre this side of romantic comedy. Rio Bravo doesn’t lean far away from any of its tropes. You can check off grizzled sheriff, struggling drunk, goofy geezer, tough woman, armed out-of-towners, and a high noon showdown. What makes Rio Bravo different from High Noon or Shane or Stagecoach is the extra time. None of those movies hits two hours. Like The Wild Bunch, another brilliant western which edges past 140 minutes, Rio Bravo uses its extra time as opportunity for character development. The movie can afford to begin with a wordless sequence involving a silver dollar and a spittoon. It can mention a wagon load of dynamite by an old warehouse and not mention it again for nearly two hours, at which time the dynamite takes on its obvious importance. It has time for a Ward Bond appearance, which in turn serves as motivation for the Ricky Nelson character; it takes time, though, for John Wayne to bring Ricky Nelson into his squadron even when he’s willing to join. The inevitable musical interlude comes awfully late in the movie, so late that I wondered if they were really going to put Martin and Nelson in the movie and not let them sing. (Forgive me, movie gods, for doubting you.) However, withholding the big name musical acts allows the movie to build up, across a few scenes, the thinly coded musical message of the Deguello. For better or worse, it has time for Angie Dickinson’s character to strike up a romance with John Wayne’s.  The handbill calls her 22, meaning that John Wayne is absolutely old enough to be her dad, and that’s more or less the role he comes up with her as well. Such is the downside, I guess, of the extra time, but on the whole the half hour that Rio Bravo has that many westerns don’t is essential to the intimate picture of the posse (and its friends).

The Chance-Dude-Stumpy triad doesn’t frequently get along, but there’s a deep understanding between them regardless that we see built on again and again. Dude (Martin) is a regionally famous drunk, so much so that he’s as well known by the nickname “Borrachon” as anything else. He very nearly goes into a spittoon to fetch out a silver dollar from a disreputable fellow with a rich brother, Joe Burdette (Claude Akins). At the moment there’s not a good reason for Chance (Wayne) to intervene; we find out later that Dude was once Chance’s deputy for some time, and the ease which Wayne and Martin have with one another gives credence to the initial defense of Dude and the arrest of Burdette, but also to the way that they interact even two hours later in the film. Chance can do his tough love bit with Dude as the latter tries to manage his alcoholism, and Dude can support Chance with a familiarity that he desperately needs, knowing that they’ll have to hold off a small army of hired killers until the marshal comes along to pick up Burdette. Even in the early stages of Dude’s rocky sobriety, Chance relies on his deputy to hold down one side of the street or to cover one of the doors in a saloon, just like the old times we never see. Stumpy (Brennan) looks to be old as the hills, and his interactions with Chance in particular are borne out of long familiarity and deference. That familiarity is useful, especially when it appears that Chance has been successfully strong-armed into giving up Burdette into the hands of his brother’s paid killers. Chance, with his gun in hand, comes into the jail where Stumpy is guarding Joe, but with two of the killers at his sides. Your keys are on your desk, Stumpy says, and as soon as Chance has moved out of the way Stumpy unloads both barrels of his shotgun on the strangers; he knows full well that Chance would never agree to release a prisoner, and certainly not one who committed a murder in a full saloon.

Much of the intimate quality of the movie goes back to John Wayne, who is affable enough in most of his interactions to give the impression of a longstanding friendship. That’s the case with Dude, Stump, Wheeler (Bond), and Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), the local hotelier, each of whom are used to Chance’s sharp tongue and independent streak as well as his occasional humor. Part of that closeness stems from Wayne’s own familiarity with the actors themselves. Wayne had worked before and would work again with Gonzalez-Gonzalez; Brennan had co-starred with Wayne in Dakota and Red River; Bond, of course, worked with Wayne in nearly two dozen movies over more than twenty years. His scenes with Wayne – in the last movie Bond ever made, incidentally – are comradely and chummy. The root of their friendship is not brought out in much detail, but there’s no doubt that they like each other and that both men, Wheeler in particular, is willing to sacrifice for the other. (Wheeler does, of course, although not quite in the manner he’d hoped to do. His death is avenged by Dude, effective for the first time in years, and it also makes Colorado significantly more interested in helping Chance with his Burdette problem.)

The willingness to accept a suicide mission is strong enough among all the men Chance comes across who aren’t being paid off to kill him. Despite Chance’s frequent and strident dismissal of help from outside the constabulary, he depends very much on others to help him. When Colorado (Nelson) refuses to help him the first time, prudently choosing to stay out of an armed conflict, Chance writes him off. Yet Colorado saves his life with some quick thinking and a little help from Feathers (Dickinson) throwing a well-timed potted plant through a window. Carlos comes to Chance’s aid during the climactic gunfight with his own shotgun and a box of shells. Stumpy, despite being told to stay behind at the jail because he can’t move, comes to the fight anyway and has a pretty explosive set of contributions. In short, it appears that Chance has managed to inspire the normal folks around him to action in just the way Will Kane didn’t. (As I understand it, the subtweet of High Noon is a major part of the subtext of Rio Bravo, which is sort of like reading about the Twelve Labors of Hercules and complaining about the physics of Hercules’ strength.) As much as any western I’ve come across, Rio Bravo is formulated to uphold myths of the winning of the American West; it seems to earnestly believe in the ability of a strong leader to overcome all obstacles. Three years later, John Ford would debut The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another John Wayne-fights-crime western about how the winning of the American West was always fraudulent. Liberty Valance is far more satisfying than Rio Bravo in that sense; it’s not high on its own musk in quite the same vainglorious way.

Rio Bravo has an obvious villain in Nathan Burdette (John Russell), who only has one scene with much dialogue but whose fingerprints are all over the movie. Russell and Akins could hardly have been brothers in real life; Akins smiles like Lee Marvin and Russell looks like John Gavin, if Gavin stole Lee Van Cleef’s nose. In the film, their kinship is more important than Nathan’s actual feelings for Joe. Chance openly says to both men that if they weren’t brothers, it would be no skin off Nathan’s teeth to let Joe hang seeing as he’s no good. Nathan is not menacing in himself, but the fact that deeds are frequently attributable to him without him ever appearing is. Wheeler is shot in the back by one of Nathan’s men, who is later shot down from the ceiling of a bar by Dude; that man is carrying a fifty-dollar gold coin on him. Chance tells the men that Nathan will need to pay more than that; on future corpses, they do indeed discover more money. Nathan also has something of a grandiose streak in him, which is appropriate enough for a wealthy rancher. In another wordless sequence, he whispers in the ear of a bandleader in one of the bars to play one song over and over again. Later on, Colorado finally explains to Chance what the song is. It’s “El Deguello,” he says, the same tune that Santa Anna had played at the Alamo. The meaning is clear enough, although Nathan appears to have forgotten what happens after the Alamo, and why the tune takes on a holy meaning for the lawmen of Presidio County, Texas. Even Nathan’s surrender, after Stumpy begins throwing sticks of dynamite at the warehouse where Burdette and his men have taken cover, takes place without us seeing much of Nathan. He and his men walk out in a long shot as opposed to close-ups, which are few and far between in the showdown anyway. The overall effect is of a mysterious threat, which plays into the Cold War subtext of the film. Unlike the High Noon disapproval inherent in its plot, this is one that I find much more effective. Nathan Burdette as a commander of men is dull; Nathan Burdette as a soulless corporate checkbook, like the antagonists of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, is far more aggressive and threatening.

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