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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ll try to read the article later but I hope the author mentions the great writing of Leigh Brackett. To refresh your memory she was the writer who completed The Big Sleep after William Faulkner fell into a bottle.

    She wrote intelligent, snappy dialogue (especially male-female dialogue) and she was so sympatico with Howard Hawks that they practically remade the picture a couple of years later. It didn’t start out that way but Hawks kept saying “Remember that great scene from Rio Bravo? Put one in like that.”

  2. James Joyner says:

    I hope the author mentions the great writing of Leigh Brackett. To refresh your memory she was the writer who completed The Big Sleep after William Faulkner fell into a bottle.

    He mentions both Brackett and The Big Sleep, but only in passing.

    they practically remade the picture a couple of years later. It didn’t start out that way but Hawks kept saying “Remember that great scene from Rio Bravo? Put one in like that.”

    Yes, “El Dorado” – 8 years later. And every bit as enjoyable. For that matter, Hawkes and Brackett collaborated on “Rio Lobo” (1970) too. Also a perfectly good flick.

  3. Personally, I’d consider Rio Bravo a failure, in that it was intended as a counterpoint to High Noon, yet does so by simply ignoring any of the issues raised by that movie.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Personally, I’d consider Rio Bravo a failure, in that it was intended as a counterpoint to High Noon, yet does so by simply ignoring any of the issues raised by that movie.

    The counterpoint was the plot: It’s the job of sworn professionals to protect the citizenry. See my July 2003 post, “High Noon for U.S. Army,” for a more detailed discussion.

  5. You’re making a naturalistic fallacy here; just because most people are dependent on The State for protection doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the way things should be.

  6. Eric Florack says:

    One of my favorites, as well.

    Now about that gun-butt scar on Claude Akins’ temple….

    (Chuckle)

  7. sam says:

    [T]he great writing of Leigh Brackett.

    She, with Lawrence Kasdan, also wrote The Empire Strikes Back.

    The counterpoint was the plot: It’s the job of sworn professionals to protect the citizenry.

    It’s generally understood, or was at one time, that High Noon was a veiled attack on the House Unamerican Activities Committee and defense of the blacklisted artists of that era. If the Duke was upset with the movie, maybe it’s because he got the subtext. The townspeople in the movie were taken by some to stand for the Hollywood actors, writers, and directors who spilled their guts in front of the Committee, not to save their lives, but, as Orson Welles put it, to save their swimming pools.

  8. sam says:

    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.

    I’m sure all you kids are too young to remember this, but, I think it was 1973 or 74 or thereabouts. The Duke was invited to speak before the Harvard student body. He accepted (he’d been in Boston for cancer treatment earlier that year). On the appointed day, and I shit you not, he was driven through Harvard Square standing up in an armored personnel carrier and deposited at Memorial Hall. He took the stage, just by himself, sitting on a straight-backed chair, and he answered questions from the audience for an hour with good and self-deprecating humor.. When it was over, he got a standing ovation from all those leftwing, hippy kids from Harvard. They loved him.

    You couldn’t imagine two people with more different politics that John Wayne and Henry Fonda (well, you can add Fonda’s best friend, James Stewart on the Wayne side of the divide). There was some poltical issue that arose one time and Fonda found himself pitted against Wayne and Ward Bond (they were all veterans of John Ford westerns). Years later in a Playboy interview, Fonda was asked about it. He said that Ward Bond never spoke to him again. How about Wayne, the interviewer asked, “Ah not Duke,” said Fonda, “he was too good natured to stay angry with you for any length of time.” And that’s how I’ve always thought of him.

  9. William d'Inger says:

    Gee, those were just shoot-’em-up cowboy movies when I saw them. It was nice to be a kid and not be concerned with the social psychology crap.