I was tempted to tuck away half a dozen Westerns inside my 100 best movies, as I believe that almost everything the American cinema has to say has been said within this genre. And if I allowed my heart to rule my head, there would be half a dozen Howard Hawks movies in there too.
Westerns seem to best express the myths of American history and the often noble, sometimes absurd, fantasies Americans have about themselves. As for Hawks, he was a master of this and most other genres – an intuitive director whose extraordinary subtleties could make even a piece of pure entertainment like Bringing Up Baby into a blazing classic.
Combine my love of Westerns and my admiration for Hawks and you have Rio Bravo, a great film and the most personal one he ever made.
I have to tell you, with some shame, that when the film arrived in Britain in 1959, the Guardian’s review (not mine) read as follows: ‘Rio Bravo is a typical Western of this age of the long-winded, large screen. It lasts for 140 minutes and it contains enough inventiveness to make do for about half that time. It is, in fact, a soporific blockbuster. John Wayne leads its cast.’ Thus we disposed of a piece of flawless story-telling, admirable in its basic simplicity and outward lack of guile, and of a great and selfless performance from Wayne, who helped Dean Martin give the best portrait of his career.
Hawks always said that he made Rio Bravo as a riposte to High Noon, in which Gary Cooper’s sheriff went ‘running around the town like a chicken with his head off asking for help’. That wasn’t his idea of a Western hero. To him, it was politically incorrect and morally reprehensible.
Sheriff Wayne in Rio Bravo needs as much help as Cooper when he imprisons a murderer and gunmen lay siege to the jail. But he gets it by being his flawed, sometimes comic but fundamentally decent and honourable self. This makes even the drunken deputy (Martin) stand up and fight, and the odd partnership it engenders teaches the sheriff to temper his own insistence on independence. Beside the sheriff and the drunk are Ricky Nelson’s young gun, Angie Dickinson’s lady gambler, with whom Wayne constantly spars, and Walter Brennan’s toothless veteran.
In all this, Rio Bravo is a deeply traditional Western. The way it is worked out, however, is anything but that. It’s a long film with a pretty slim plot and lots of comic diversions, like Wayne modelling a pair of bloomers for Dickinson, who tells him, ‘Those things have possibilities, sheriff. But not on you.’ So firmly is the whole thing based on character, however, that you come out of it feeling you’ve seen something special about humanity in general. It’s a feelgood movie that for once rings true, even as you admit a certain strand of orthodoxy, even cliche, that is seen in Westerns time and time again. It’s also quite exciting, because, although you know things will probably turn out okay, Hawks never lets you be quite sure of it. Someone’s going to have to die.
Watching the film, you won’t see any great vistas like John Ford’s Monument Valley or backdrops like Budd Boetticher’s Lonesome Pine nestling in the Alabama Hills. This is just a scrubby little township with a seedy hotel, a saloon, a jail and nothing whatsoever to commend it, bar the characters who live there.
If Ford had made the picture, it wouldn’t have been possible to avoid a larger cast and more of an idea of the community at large. If Anthony Mann, another great master of the Western, had done it, there would have been more directorial philosophising and the psychology would have been less basic. What we get from Hawks is austerity, rigour and intensity.
Of course, there are a dozen different ways to make Westerns, and Hawks’s way in Rio Bravo lacks the epic nature of Red River, the greater flamboyance (and Mitchum) of El Dorado and the sheer if nonsensical fun of Hatari! But it’s a better film than any of them because of its concentration and the deep feelings that Hawks clearly poured into it.
They say he modelled the Wayne character on himself – but if so, it was surely unconsciously. What he did do was allow a great script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett to flow as naturally as possible, while burnishing it with bits and pieces of extemporising, right down to what the actors wore, like Martin’s soiled sweatshirt and dirty old hat.
When Hawks showed Jack Warner the film, Warner said, ‘We hired Dean Martin. When’s he going to be in this picture?’ Hawks replied, ‘He’s the funny-looking guy in the old hat.’ ‘Holy smoke,’ said Warner. ‘Is that Dean Martin?’ It was, and in a way it was his picture.