Rio Bravo is a riveting hallmark of the Western genre. Stretching reticent tension over 141-minutes of runtime, Howard Hawks’ 1959 touchstone unravels with unhurried command and is here and gone like a cloud of gun smoke. Without intense focus on violence or action, the film is instead propelled by a vibrant, harsh environment and the lion-hearted characters who occupy it. They face difficult choices and confront looming inner conflict as a larger, menacing predicament closes in and threatens to destroy them.
The endearing resonance of Rio Bravo is owed to magnificent talent brimming within the cast and crew. Operating with tremendous reserve, John Wayne is impressive as Sheriff John T. Chance, a man who often speaks with vigilant eyes and body language. He refuses to admit fear, knowing it could hinder his public duty. This internal struggle ripples quietly through Wayne’s performance. The role could easily be played to historical type, but Wayne refines the Hollywood idea of the Old West lawman with charismatic subtlety and depth. After arresting wealthy rancher Nathan Burdette’s brother Joe for cold-blooded murder, Sheriff Chance notices dozens of unfamiliar faces lurking the streets of Rio Bravo. A US Marshall is en-route to haul the prisoner away in chains, but Burdette’s cronies are heavily armed and assembled, determined to spring Joe and rightfully earn the $50 gold pieces in their pockets.
The danger is widespread but not for Chance to withstand alone. His deputy—known to associates as Dude and Borrachón (Drunk) to everyone else—is a ragged faced cavalier played with kinetic perfection by the King of Cool, Dean Martin. His addiction haunts the film. Although he remains a reliably quick trigger, Dude’s confidence teeters on the perilous trek to sobriety. Self-doubt manages to twist him into a fragile mess with the help of miserable withdrawals and paralyzing heartbreak. Martin was a star with ice-cold swagger and alcohol struggles of his own before Rio Bravo. He burst into the spotlight first as a radio comedian opposite Jerry Lewis. Later he met Frank Sinatra and found further fame as one-fifth of the legendary Rat-Pack. A weekly variety series on NBC soon followed, earning him a Golden Globe and fruitful ratings until its end in 1974. Although his career isn’t engraved in the foundation of the American Western like that of Wayne, his courageous portrayal of Dude lends painful nuance to an otherwise rugged narrative.
The camaraderie between the two leads is the beating heart of Rio Bravo. We feel rich history buried in the curious realism of their interactions. Their brotherhood is uplifting when Chance reveals he bought two pistols Dude sold for booze money, knowing his friend would need them again someday. In the brilliant, dialogue-free opening sequence, we witness their relative bond play out. A smirking barfly flicks a coin into a spittoon and beckons Dude to fish it out. Desperate to quell his tremors with a drink, he reluctantly reaches in. Chance boots the spittoon across the bar in hopes of preserving Dude’s dignity as if it were his own. In true little brother fashion, Dude responds by cracking Chance’s forehead with an axhandle. Chance doesn’t retaliate. And later when Dude hits him a second time, he passively rebukes an apology with a stern warning, ensuring the next time won’t be so pleasant. “Sorry don’t get it done, Dude. That’s the second time you hit me. Don’t ever do it again.”
A tremendous supporting cast contribute their share of remarkable moments. Three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan gives hilarious honesty and razor-sharp wit as a shotgun-toting, peg-legged jailer named Stumpy. He’s madly loyal to Chance and Dude and often digs beneath their skin with his raspy critique like a troublesome uncle. These three find a reliable hand in Colorado Ryan, a slick young gun played by rock star Ricky Nelson. With limited screen time, Nelson succeeds as an outsider in this tiny posse. He quickly acclimates to the ways of his new allies and finds a place in the complexities between them. Angie Dickinson glows as Feathers, a drifter passing through Rio Bravo. She isn’t a damsel or tidy housewife but a professional gambler who slowly wins Chance’s affection. At only twenty-seven years old, Dickinson boldly held her footing with some of the best talent of the time and took home a Golden Globe for her glorious effort. This victory foreshadowed her future prominence in film and television. Check her out with Lee Marvin in Point Blank or as a Marion Crane-inspired victim in Brian De Palma’s sexy Hitchcock homage, Dressed to Kill.
One would expect the star power to dim when moving away from the acting talent, but the screenplay is a product of superior storytelling. Jules Furthman penned a number of important films with this script as his last. It was also his final film with Howard Hawks after collaborating on classics like Come and Get It, To Have and Have Not, and Only Angels Have Wings. Furthman co-wrote Rio Bravo with Leigh Brackett, a wonderful scribe who established her own working relationship with Hawks. She was known for vast volumes of science fiction and wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite films, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Shortly before her death in 1978, she worked with Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas on a draft for The Empire Strikes Back, cementing her title as “Queen of the Space Era.”
Dmitri Tiomkin’s score chimes with the fierce spirit of the frontier and ushers the film to newer, more powerful levels of discernment. With twenty-two Oscar nominations and four wins, Tiomkin was a hero of his field. Responsible for scoring sweeping epics like Red River, High Noon, and Duel in the Sun, his career was pivotal to the Western genre. When Sergio Leone sought music to accompany A Fistful of Dollars, he asked Ennio Morricone to write some “Dmitri Tiomkin music.” Morricone would later compose “The Ecstasy of Gold” for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, one of the most beautiful instrumentals in all of cinema. His work for Leone was imaginative and groundbreaking, but not without generous echoes of Tiomkin’s brilliance.
Taking full advantage of two singers with powerhouse fame, Hawks included three specific songs for Nelson and Martin to perform. Martin’s wonderful Rio Bravo theme accompanies the final credits with the remaining tunes arising somewhat naturally within the story. Chance, Dude, Stumpy, and a guitar-cradling Colorado barricade themselves in the jailhouse and decide to pass the time with a little music. Nelson later leads an upbeat rendition of “Get Along Home, Cindy,” but the real treasure is “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” a duet introduced by Martin. Lounging on his back, he crows the first verse of the lonely cowboy ballad. Nelson takes the second verse and the result is catchy and warm. As they jam without care like the danger outside has vanished, Chance smiles, but doesn’t sing a word.
Howard Hawks’ 41st outing as director arrived after a period of critical and box office failure. Consumed by the pressures of what he assumed to be a career in decline, Hawks often vomited in secret before shooting scenes in Rio Bravo. Out of his immense inner torment, a masterpiece was born. Poised and smooth in delivery, Hawks captures striking frames splashed with vivid color, deep shadows, and stripes of gorgeous light. So mighty is his vision that many modern directors like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and John Carpenter hail the film with tremendous praise. This is no surprise because Rio Bravo is a genius creation filled with electric movement and life. It stands triumphantly as Hawks’ greatest work and one of the finest achievements in American cinema.