John Wayne, Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and John Russell in Rio Bravo (1959)


(director: Howard Hawks; screenwriters: from a short story by B.H. McCampbell/Jules Furthman/Leigh Brackett; cinematographer: Russell Harlan; editor: Folmar Blangsted; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: John Wayne (Sheriff John T. Chance), Dean Martin (Dude, ‘Borachón’), Ricky Nelson (Colorado Ryan), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Walter Brennan (Stumpy), Ward Bond (Pat Wheeler), John Russell (Nathan Burdette), Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales (Carlos Robante), Estelita Rodriguez (Consuela Robante), Claude Akins (Joe Burdette), Walter Barnes (Charlie, bartender); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Howard Hawks; Warner Brothers; 1959)

“Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo as a conservative response to the liberal High Noon.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Howard Hawks made “Rio Bravo” as a conservative response to the liberal “High Noon.” This rambling Western is not nearly as good as his near masterpiece “Red River,” but it nevertheless is one of the better ones ever made. Despite being overlong and more a film that relies on set pieces and character development than a traditional Western epic story, yet it still is winsome in an oater sort of way because it has an easy going charm in its unhurried pace–even while waiting for its action-packed climax Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson have time to sing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.”

Rio Bravo is based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell and is excellently scripted by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett. Most of the film is made up of interior shots and it doesn’t necessarily look much like a Western, more like a drama. It was more or less remade in 1966 as El Dorado and in 1970 as Rio Lobo.

It’s set in Texas’ rural Presidio County in the late 1860s. Hard-nosed rifle-toting Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) is holding drunken thug Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) in his small jail for the murder of an unarmed man in a saloon fight. Joe’s ruthless land baron brother Nathan Burdette (John Russell) is the richest and most powerful man in the county and has vowed to get his brother out of jail by force. He’s hired around 40 professional killers, while the proud sheriff is unwilling to ask anyone but fellow professionals for help even though he clearly needs help while he waits the six days before the marshal comes to transfer the prisoner to a bigger and more secure jail. The help on hand comes from his former deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), or as the Mexicans call him Borachón (Spanish for drunk), who for the last two years has become a moping drunk who has sunk so low that he digs into spittoons for loose change to buy beers and all because the wrong woman he fell for dumped him. The other deputy is the cranky motormouth Stumpy (Walter Brennan), an elderly cripple. Added to the mix is a cocksure young gunslinger named Colorado (Ricky Nelson), who joins only after his kind-hearted wagon train boss Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) is bushwhacked by one of Burdette’s hired goons for trying to help his old friend Chance recruit help. Colorado’s only fault is that he’s too young. The last unlikely candidate to join the sheriff’s party is a wanted gambler woman named Feathers (Angie Dickinson) passing through town on her way to Ft. Worth, who has to stay the night because the stage broke down. She stays longer after falling for Chance, even refusing to accept his disapproval of her chosen career and loose lifestyle. All Chance’s recruits are flawed characters with different types of strong inner reserves, who are either eager for a chance to redeem themselves and regain their lost dignity or prove that they can do the job or are needed. What they all have in common is that they can’t stop arguing with each other, though they all sort of agree that the rugged individualist sheriff has lost some of his humanity by being so isolated. But they are all inspired by his integrity and backbone that they feel moved to help him, knowing that he’s a man that’s so proud that he can never just say he needs help. Hawks’ film takes a long look at a person’s character and examines among the outcasts what pride and professionalism mean to them.

The plot is real simple. The gunmen stalk the town and make attempts to free Joe, causing the sheriff to realize that he can’t do it alone–he really needed his so-called misfits to help. Chance keeps the immobile Stumpy in the jail guarding Joe at all times and has given him the order to kill Joe at any attempt made to free him. It all leads to the exciting finale–a shootout between Burdette’s hired thugs and Chance’s friends.

The performances are all grand (that includes in a supporting role Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez and Estelita Rodriguez, who play the hotel working friends of the Duke); the characters are well-observed though all the good guys wear white hats and bad guys don black hats, as Hawks is more interested in the majesty and humor of this tight group he brought together and therefore his aim is to make them seem like family–where independence is fine but relationships are essential.