Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan
Director: Howard Hawks
Mood: Honestly this movie is great for any mood except maybe if you only want to watch a grim Western that will make you miserable.
The reason I urgently needed to watch Rio Bravo was simple: I’ve been confusing it with Rio Grande, so I needed to have seen them both. I actually mixed up the two titles again while writing that sentence.
I was picturing myself at a dinner party for Western aficionados and f*cking up the titles and looking like an idiot. But I figured I’d save face if I could at least discuss the plots in great detail.
Yes, this is the kind of thing I think about. A lot.
Back on topic: I assumed Rio Bravo would be at least decent, given the cast. So this was my Friday night treat to myself. And what a treat, holy shit. I didn’t expect to like it even half as much as I did.
This movie is enjoyable on so many levels, and that’s not just my opinion. It was the highest-grossing Western of 1959, and it’s so good that apparently Quentin Tarantino uses it to judge his compatibility with potential girlfriends.
Rio Bravo takes place in Texas, at an unspecified time – just that typical Ye Olde West-y era of the 1880s.
You’re dropped right into the thick of it. A shabby-looking guy walks into a bar, meets a disappointed-looking John Wayne, gets beat up, a cowboy gets shot, John Wayne gets knocked out but also knocks out a guy with his shotgun, and a whole bunch of other action happens in the span of four minutes.
All of this with no dialogue. I felt intrigued, and confused.
The guy who shot the cowboy is part of a powerful family. You know the type in Westerns: they have a lot of guns and think they’re above the law. Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) holds him for murder, with the help of his two deputies: a drunk named Dude (Dean Martin) and a bum-legged old guy named Stumpy (Walter Brennan).
And of course, the family will do anything to bust their man out.
The first thing that struck me about Rio Bravo was that literally everyone gives a great performance. Usually one or two standouts grab my attention, and in a cast this big, a lot of people fade into the background.
But this movie radiates ‘50s Western perfection. John Wayne is such a straight man, in a good way, that it gives every other character a chance to shine.
This was actually an intentional choice by director Howard Hawks. He wanted to make a Western entirely driven by the characters, rather than the plot. He got a lot of pushback, until the studio heads realized John Wayne would be attached. Wayne had actually tried to move away from Westerns after The Searchers, but after multiple ‘meh’ movies in a row, he realized he could be the most successful as John Wayne, cowboy. This was his return to that persona.
Rio Bravo was so f*cking successful that rumour has it El Dorado and Rio Lobo were just repurposed versions of the same story. You can bet I’m going to hunt them down to investigate.
- Fun Fact: Bad guy Burdette gets the saloon band to repeatedly play ‘El Degüello’ to send a message – that was the song that the Mexican army played day and night at the Alamo; John Wayne starred in The Alamo AND most of the action in Rio Bravo takes place at the Hotel Alamo!
My first note on any character in the entire movie just said, “OMG Stumpy is giving me life!”. Western veteran Walter Brennan delivers the absolute best old-man-sidekick you could ask for. From his voice and mannerisms to his physicality, Brennan is so hilarious and endearing that he steals every scene – even from Wayne.
The real shocker for me, though, was Dean Martin as Dude. I had never seen Martin act, but I knew he was a crooner so I assumed he was another slick Sinatra type.
But Martin immerses himself in the role of a depressed alcoholic cowboy. Martin apparently went to his pal Marlon Brando for pointers on how to play the role. Whatever he did, it works insanely well.
His performance has more layers and levels than any other, and you can’t help but root for him to finally do something right.
Angie Dickinson is good as Feathers. Her character stands out from other ‘50s Western women because it’s repeatedly hinted that she’s an outlaw. Dickinson is saucy and sharp, and fun to watch. My only criticism is that it’s a bit one-note – when she’s crying, drunk, or flirtatious, they’re all similar. But I would totally watch her in another Western.
Rio Bravo also has two Mexican-American characters played by actual Mexican-American and Cuban actors, and they get fully realized parts that are integral to the story and aren’t limited to stereotypes. The same is true of the Chinese undertaker. His conversations with Wayne, though brief, are no different from Wayne’s interactions with other characters.
The best part about Rio Bravo was actually learning all the TRIVIA from the making of the movie. And you can bet we’re taking this to a bullet list:
- Ricky Nelson, who did a surprisingly great job of playing Colorado, turned 18 one week into shooting; John Wayne and Dean Martin hazed him into manhood by throwing him into a 300-pound sack of steer manure
- Nelson’s 1958 song ‘Poor Little Fool’ (which came out the year before Rio Bravo was released) was the first number-one song on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart; director Hawks didn’t want to cast him, and intentionally gave him the bare minimum number of lines – but still gave him three songs in the film, and admitted that his name on the bill added at least $2 million at the box office
- The gun belt of Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, who played Carlos, has its own cool impact on modern Westerns: it was used by his grandson Clifton Collins Jr. in his costume for Westworld
- Rio Bravo’s screenwriter, Leigh Brackett – a woman who wrote a Western in the ‘50s! – also wrote the original draft for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back; many of her original ideas appeared in the final movie
- The rifle used by John Wayne and the hat and shotgun used by Walter Brennan are all currently on display at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City
And this one deserves a few paragraphs of its own – Rio Bravo was actually made in response to High Noon.
When that movie was released, John Wayne went on record saying he didn’t like it. He didn’t think a real Western lawman would ask for help (and also felt it was blatantly un-American, but that’s a whole other story). Director Howard Hawks agreed. So they wanted to make a movie that was kind of ‘in your face’ to High Noon. Wayne’s character turns down multiple offers of help, even though he needs it, and even grumbles about all his pals showing up to help in the final showdown.
High Noon star Gary Cooper then told the press that Rio Bravo was “so phony, nobody believes in it.”
And popular composer Dimitri Tiomkin scored both movies.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. Rio Bravo is a must-see Western. It’s so much fun, and so well-made, that it should be required viewing for every Western fan. I’m sorry it took me so long to watch it myself. If you don’t like it, you probably also hate dessert. And that’s messed up.