Sunday, 28 October 2012

Rio Bravo (1959)

Dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson

John Wayne was disgusted with the film High Noon. It was borderline Communistic in his eyes: a film where the Marshall is reduced to going door-to-door to beg his fellow townsfolk for help. And they all turn their backs on him. It was, to Wayne, a negation of everything that being American stood for. 

And so he got together with director Howard Hawks and together they made Rio Bravo as a direct riposte. This was a film to show that Americans knew right from wrong and acted accordingly.

Wayne (previously seen in Dakota and True Grit) stars as Sheriff John T. Chance. He is not as compromised as in either of those two films however – here he is an out-and-out good guy. He arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder – much to the anger of his wealthy rancher brother Nathan (John Russell). Nathan stops up the town of Rio Bravo to rescue his murderer brother. But it is Chance’s duty as sheriff to see that justice is done. He does not seek assistance. He even turns it down when it is offered. Yet in their own ways a motley crew of people play their part in ensuring that the Burdettes see justice. The Burdettes laugh that all Chance has on his side is “a drunk and a cripple”; but both play their part. Dean Martin’s Dude, the drunk (or “Borrachón” as he is known in Spanish) quits the sauce and refinds his pride; the constantly kvetching tin-legged Stumpy (Walter Brennan, the steamboat captain from Dakota) also refuses to let his disability get in the way. Also offering assistance are wagon train owner Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond, the villain in Dakota, appearing alongside Wayne for the 22nd time), the smart young sharpshooter known as Colorado (Ricky Nelson), Mexican hotel owner Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) and ever-so-slightly soiled rose ‘Feathers’ (Angie Dickinson) who visits Rio Bravo while gambling her way through the old west. The drunk, the cripple, the kid, the Mexican and the showgirl - outsiders all.
Only a desperate man would trade his waistcoat for whisky
The film ambles along, with the Sheriff and his deputies holding the line while Burdette’s hired killer poke and pry at their defences. It ends – of course – with a climactic shoot-out. This central story line is pretty good stuff and revolves around two people struggling with their own decisions. Dean Martin shows that he is not just a meatball crooner as he plays the part of a man resurfacing from a two-year drinking binge and discovering that he can take a lot of pride in who he is. He starts the film in tattered clothes, scavenging for coins in a spittoon; he ends it a hero. His stand-out scene has to be when he rediscovers his swagger by tracking a killer into the saloon; as he explains to Chance, he's nver been allowed to go in the front door before. Ricky Nelson plays the Han Solo part, a detached young man who looks out for himself but then makes the moral choice to get involved. Another plot line concerns the relationship between Chance (played by the 51-year-old Wayne) and the 22-year-old-ish Feathers. Angie Dickinson is certainly sparky enough, but she has to be because she gets nothing back from Wayne. It is a bizarre kissing-with-closed-lips affair. I can’t see what attracts Feathers to him enough to make her want to change her ways, and I can’t see that he is attracted to her at all. There is no passion or romance in their relationship at all; the nearest we get is Chance’s stone-faced threatening to arrest her if she goes out wearing (gasp!) tights! As such, it’s a rather weird sub-plot to foist upon the viewer. While I liked Angie Dickinson’s performance I felt this plot-line rather undermined the value of the remainder of the film. So too does one very odd scene in the jailhouse. The Burdettes have made repeated attempts upon their lives, the sheriff and his deputies are holed up insude… and they have a jolly little sing-song. Now don’t get me wrong – it’s a nice jolly little sing-song between Martin, Nelson and Brennan. But it just doesn’t fit. It is almost as though the studio, at a very late date, suddenly realised that they had two singing stars in the same film (Martin and Nelson) and thought that they had better get their money’s-worth out of them. They even threw in a few cut-aways to a genially laughing John Wayne. But it is hopelessly out-of-place at that point in the movie. 

Those caveats aside, the film ain’t bad. It benefits from not having the High Noon refrain played every four minutes; instead veteran western-score composer Dmitri Tiomkin takes a light hand with, for him, a rather unmemorable soundtrack. The action scenes are good and the characters of Dude, Colorado and Feathers are intriguing. There is plenty to arrest the attention of the casual viewer. It just could have done with being a bit tighter and having the romantic sub-plot dropped.

What have I learnt about Texas?
This is Western territory once again. Dry plains, looming rocky mountains, clapboard towns full of saloons and outfitters – and one plucky sheriff trying to hold the whole thing together. Money talks out here, with cattle barons having the most of it; they can hire men to commit crimes with their money. We have Mexicans here as well, drinking in the bars, playing their music and running hotels. 

The memory of the Alamo lives long in Texan memories. The Mexicans apparently played a piece of music over and over to unnerve the defenders and signal that they would give no quarter: that piece of music is the El Degűello that Nathan pays a band to play here to unnerve Chance and Co. 

Can we go there?
The film is set in the town of Rio Bravo (though, to be honest, it was never referred to that I heard) in Presidio County, Texas. This places it in the extreme west of the state on the Rio Grande river (referred to as the Rio Bravo in Mexico), roughly half-way between El Paso and what is now the Big Bend National Park 

Sadly Rio Bravo was not shot on location along the Rio Bravo – in fact no river is seen in the movie. If was filmed in the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, where Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was shot. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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