#35 — Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
The default tendency when looking back at films from a few generations back, especially those presided over by those filmmakers who’ve been anointed auteurs by all the right authorities, is to find all sorts of deeper meaning to them, philosophical and existential undercurrents that justify pronouncements of art. Surely that’s not entirely off-base. By the time director Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo the director was well into his sixties, and he undoubtedly had plenty he wanted to say. It’s well-established, for instance, that the film was partially inspired by John Wayne’s distaste for High Noon, largely because of its subtextual attacks on McCarthyism. The Duke was a strong supporter of the various efforts to demonize Communists and drive them out of the country and wanted to be a part of a film that established the primacy of justice. Of course, that was a foundational premise of most of his westerns, making the reactionary element of Rio Bravo redundant and negligible. No matter what Wayne wanted–and presumably Hawks, too–Rio Bravo isn’t special because the pointedness of its political voice. Instead, it’s special because it’s an incredibly skilled piece of entertainment.
As with the best of his rough contemporaries–the likes of John Ford, William Wyler, and Frank Capra–Hawks simply knew how to put together a picture. Working from a screenplay credited to Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (based on a short story written by B.H. McCampbell), Hawks lays of the particulars of his stories with an unburdened care. In the Texas town of Rio Bravo, visiting sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) winds up stepping up to handle the tasks of local lawman, in large part because of the feeble efforts in that regard by a a drunkard called Dude (Dean Martin). When the murder of an innocent in a bar fight causes them to toss Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) in jail, his villainous rancher brother, Nathan (John Russell), comes riding in with henchman in tow, prepared to bust his kin out of the hoosegow. Much of Rio Bravo is about Chance and the men he’s enlisted to help him–including Dude, a gunslinger played by Ricky Nelson, and a crotchety old local played Walter Brennan–making their stand against the privileged rancher intent on deciding for himself how the law will and won’t be applied.
Hawks clearly liked the story, remaking it twice within the next twelve years (as El Dorado, in 1966, and then Rio Lobo, in 1970). His pleasure shows in the attentiveness he brings to the work, filling it with vividly-drawn character moments and bits of unabashed showmanship. Nelson was a teen idol singing star at the time, racking up a flurry of Billboard Top 10 hits, and Martin was of course a noted crooner, so Hawks is perfectly fine stopping the film in its tracks a few times to give his stars some time to sing while hanging out in the jailhouse. It doesn’t necessarily make a ton of sense within the context of the established fiction, but it does serve the needs and desires of the audience. And somehow that works perfectly fine, undoubtedly because Hawks consistently constructed his films with a sound sense of the entertainment value they were supposed to deliver. Like a keen craftsman, he made his statements with the soundness of his product rather than the intricacies of veiled meanings. There’s less cause to unpack it because it’s mainly there to be enjoyed, and it fulfills that charge remarkably well. The fact that Rio Bravo is fairly simple and direct doesn’t mean it can’t also be great.