Rio Bravo at 50
Big Hollywood’s Leo Grin has an excellent analysis of the classic Howard Hawks film Rio Bravo, which was made 50 years ago. A generous excerpt:
Characters are the most important elements of any Hawks movie. By 1958 he had concluded that “audiences were getting tired of plots….But if you keep them from knowing what the plot is you have a chance of holding their interest…It’s when a character believes in something that a situation happens, not because you write it to happen.” Hawks had an unparalleled flair for consciously using detail to expertly reveal character. All throughout the production of Rio Bravo, he would sit silently as the actors rehearsed their scenes, ever on the lookout for ways to organically grow their motivations cinematically, thereby creating deep wells of subtext without clubbing the audience over the head with a screaming, obvious M-E-S-S-A-G-E.
Most crucially, it was director Hawks who crafted John Wayne’s character into a master not only of action but of reaction, in the process establishing an overriding feeling of camaraderie that makes the film endlessly rewatchable. “John Wayne represents more force, more power than anyone else on screen,” Hawks claimed, and yet by dint of directorial will the star of Rio Bravo becomes everyone else’s straight man. During the course of the plot the Duke gets socked by Dean Martin (twice!), is verbally out-dueled by the precocious Ricky Nelson, suffers the outrageous behavior of Walter Brennan, is relentlessly teased by the ever-flirtatious Angie Dickinson, and is continuously rescued by all of the above. “You give everybody else the fireworks,” Wayne grumbled to Hawks at one point, “but I have to carry the damn thing.”
And yet Hawks knew that, with a universe of talents at his disposal, Wayne’s secret weapon was always his generosity and humility as an actor, his penchant for binding himself and his ego to the needs of a picture. He was unparalleled in his ability to lend his potent movie-star glow to others in a scene, holding up the entire business like a grizzled, enduring Atlas. For Rio Bravo, the breakthrough came during one of Dean Martin’s many set-pieces, while Wayne was standing aside and watching glumly as Martin got to once again chew up the scenery with his performance. “What do I do while he’s playing all of these good scenes?” he finally asked Hawks in frustration.
“Well,” Hawks replied, “you look at him as a friend.”
Suddenly everything Hawks had been striving for, the entire emotional spectrum he was meticulously constructing, became clear. And throughout the finished Rio Bravo, you can go to any point and see the spectacular results of Wayne embracing Hawks’ perceptive direction. Watch, for instance, the scene after Walter Brennan’s character Stumpy has almost killed Dean Martin by carelessly shooting at him through the jailhouse door. Wayne stands by as Brennan, one of the all-time great scene-stealing character actors, goes through an entire blabbering monologue of words and emotions that covers denial, mortification, and finally a resigned acceptance of responsibility. It’s all great stuff, hugely entertaining — but look closely at Wayne. Not a word spoken, not a single word. And yet his pitch-perfect reactions to each of Brennan’s lines gives the scene its touching pathos and power.
Wayne spends virtually the entire film loaning his star power to others in this fashion, not acting so much as reacting, and using those reactions to give his co-stars a much brighter spotlight in which to shine. Indisputably, we have Howard Hawks to thank for that.
Much, much more at the link.
Randy Barnett says the flick “was never one of my favorite westerns” but will give it another go after Grin’s review. It’s long been one of my favorite Wayne flicks precisely because of the great character interaction described above, featuring the superb repartee that was a hallmark of most of the Duke’s best movies. Similarly, the best of the genre, and certainly “Rio Bravo” was an archetype, very much had a M-E-S-S-A-G-E but it was conveyed through the protagonist’s deeds rather than a lot of speechifying.
John Wayne vehicles were seldom realistic and often corny by today’s more cynical standards. But they were incredibly entertaining and uplifting. I recently saw the new “Star Trek” movie and found it much the same. After years of that franchise leaving its “space opera” roots for more preachy plots, it was great to see the focus returned to daring heroism and the interaction between friends whose bonds have been forged through shared trials.
See my July 2003 post, “High Noon for U.S. Army,” for a more detailed discussion of Rio Bravo as Hawks’ and Wayne’s angry counterpoint to the Gary Cooper classic High Noon. Grin’s essay also discusses that angle.