Rio Bravo is about as laid back as one can get when watching a western. It fills you with that tricky sweet spot other films would envy by having an even mixture of warm, engaging characters, a tense story, and nice plotted out action, all tightly wound together in the most satisfying way. It’s the type of film where all of its mechanics are invisible as the craft never draws attention to itself. It’s pure filmmaking, and it might be too entertaining for one to notice that it is in fact a masterpiece.
Rio Bravo begins with a rather ingenius silent sequence which sets up the film’s inciting incident. We see The Dude (Dean Martin), the local town drunk entering a tavern begging for a drink. A local gunslinger named Joe Burdett (Claude Atkins) laughs at him and throws a coin in a spitoon for Dude to fish and buy his drink with. However he is stopped by the town Sheriff and best friend John T. Chance (John Wayne). After a tussle which leaves Chance knocked out and the Dude beaten, Joe shoots an innocent bystander in cold blood. He is promptly arrested by Chance, and the heroes must now wait for the Marshall to arrive which will be in about six days. In the mean time Joe’s wealthy brother Nathan (John Russell) will scheme his way to get him out of jail.
The rest of the film is a waiting game, as the stakes begin to raise and Chance feels outgunned. Even though Dude is now sober to help, he’s still struggling from withdrawl which makes him doubt himself. Inside the jail is a cranky, old crippled man named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) guarding Joe, while on the outside Nathan’s pack of gunfighters are mounting an attack, which feels like only a matter of time.
I’ve watched Rio Bravo many times, since I first caught it on TV one afternoon as a kid. It was the first western I ever became enamoured with. Before it, I suppose I had a stuck up opinion of westerns like I did with musicals, or documentaries at the time. I considered them boring and old fashioned, with nothing really interesting to say. However what struck me right away in that first viewing was how it drew me in with the characters and the story. It seemed so simple, just a few lawmen held up for days outmatched and outgunned with nothing to do but wait for the Marshall, yet the film almost makes these high stakes an after thought. What really matters are these characters, and their relationships, what they are going through, and how they interact. There is very much dialogue in the film which isn’t what you would normally associate with westerns off hand. There’s also comedy, very smart comedy in it, so much so that it’s on the precipice of being a farce.
Much of this is courtesy of Chance’s courtship with a rather femme fatale cardsharp named Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a girl who has his number before he realizes it. The banter between Chance and Feathers lightens the mood at times, and is meant to suggest that perhaps we aren’t supposed to take the dire life or death plot too seriously. What it does do is reinforce just how wonderfully entertaining this film can be. It’s hard to believe the balancing act of real emotional poignancy, such as Dude’s arc of finding the man he once was, to utter laid back commraderie like in the scene where everyone is sitting in the jail singing cowboy tunes (accompanied by 50s teen icon Ricky Nelson playing the young deputy Colorado).
Part of the film’s structure came from the changing landscape of 1950s cinema, and the influence of television, which had the reputation of being a competitor to film. Legendary director Howard Hawks said he looked at the televised westerns as his main inspiration. He saw how the episodes were more concerned with the characters, rather than the plot, so he took that mantra to his film.
In that way, Rio Bravo meanders, after all it’s nearly a two and a half hour movie, but the style and attitude it establishes never makes you think it ever does. In other words, you are never bored, even when the pacing feels slow, there is always something going on. Sometimes it’s the slow building tension such as when Nathan Burdette gets a Mexican band to play a song entitled “The Cuttthroat Song” which sends a clear message to Chance about his intentions. The song is later utilized when Dude hears it right before he’s about the fall off the wagon because of his shakes. The song reminds him of what he’s doing, and perhaps also what his purpose is. It’s a powerful, staggering moment done mostly with music, and Dean Martin’s face.
However the film also demonstrates a certain type of heroism coming from professionals who are doing their job. It’s become common knowledge that Rio Bravo was Hawks’ response to another classic western High Noon. In that film Gary Cooper portrays a sheriff who runs around town asking for help from citizens when a group of killers are due to arrive. Hawks criticized the film saying a real sheriff wouldn’t rely on townsfolk to help him, rather he would have people who would know what they were doing. The film does show the side of the lawmen in their element, aware of the danger and using smart, preventable tactics to avoid any trouble. Even Dude who is barely hanging on and Stumpy a crippled old man know what they are doing, and know what they are best at. It’s only moments of doubt that sometimes cloud their judgement.
For some, Rio Bravo may stand as a bit old fashioned as far as values go. Nevertheless the film does hearken back to a certain type of masculinity that has for the most part vanished from films. In our political climate, it may be difficult to grasp the idea of no nonsense men doing what needs to be done. There is sometimes a stigma to that now, particularly since these were men who symbolized the quiet stoicism which can often be deemed as problematic. The fact that it stars John Wayne, who can be a very complicated and controversial figure when it comes to masculinity underlines this aspect as well. Very often now a days, audiences demand their heroes to be more complex, and even anti-establishmen, whereas Rio Bravo broadly conveys who the heroes are, and that they are clearly on the side of law and order.
However what strikes me with Rio Bravo each time I watch it is how it never gets old. The ingredients blend a brew so enjoyable, it’s hard to look away from it. Every moment, shot, and performance adds to the pure entertainment value to the film. It’s one of those movies that hooks you once you see it, and it dares you to look away. I’m impressed with how full it is, and how it uses time, and space to tell its story fully. When it ends, you wonder where the time went, wishing it could continue for just a while longer. I return to Rio Bravo time and again, when I feel that urge of excitement and commeraderie. Much like visiting an old friend, Rio Bravo reminds you almost right away why you loved the film in the first place.