Western RoundUp: Rio Bravo (1959)
This month I’m taking a look at Rio Bravo (1959), which is not only one of my favorite Westerns, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies.
My history with this film goes back to May of 1977 when I was in my early teens and saw the film for the very first time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theater. (Alas, the theater where I had so many formative movie viewing experiences was demolished in 2020.) Even at that point in my life I was keeping records of my movie watching and gave Rio Bravo a four-star rating, an impression which has only been solidified with the passage of time.
As the years went by I also enjoyed introducing our children to the movie; it’s a particular favorite of our oldest son’s, and when we adopted a stray dog who came to our door many years ago, everyone approved of our son’s suggestion to name our dog Chance, after John Wayne‘s Rio Bravo character, Sheriff John T. Chance.
Because the movie was on our TV screen so often when our children were young, I refrained from watching it in recent years, though I loved it no less; part of my thinking was that perhaps the next time I saw it I’d be fortunate to see it once again on a big screen. Due to COVID, that now seems unlikely in the coming months, so when I had a yen to see the film recently I pulled out our DVD for a happy reunion with old friends.
Rio Bravo was directed by Howard Hawks, who had previously directed Wayne in another Western classic, Red River (1948). The screenplay by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett was inspired by a story by B.H. McCampbell.
For those who haven’t seen it, the film takes place in a dusty frontier town where, shortly after the film begins, Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for killing a man in cold blood.
Joe is the brother of powerful Nathan Burdette (John Russell), who pledges to free his brother from the jail before the marshal can arrive to pick Joe up for trial. Burdette’s men are placed all over town, keeping a threatening eye on the jailhouse. The only men the sheriff has to aid him are his deputies, elderly Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and alcoholic Dude (Dean Martin).
When Chance’s old friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) arrives in town and offers his help, Chance turns him down, but Wheeler is gunned down in the street anyway. Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a young gunslinger who had been working for Wheeler, joins forces with Chance to prevent Joe from being busted out of jail.
“Feathers” (Angie Dickinson), a gambler’s widow who’s also just arrived in town, takes a liking to Chance and helps as she can, guarding Chance while he sleeps and later helping Chance and Colorado by providing distraction during a key moment battling Burdette’s men.
In the end, like so many Westerns, it all comes down to an explosive – literally! – gunfight.
Rio Bravo is a superb mixture of familiar Western themes, great dialogue, top action scenes, music, romance, and marvelous performances; in a nutshell, it has every single element a Western fan could want.
I’ve always had warm feelings about the camaraderie in this film, played out in many scenes against glowing lamplight. Thinking along those lines, this was my first time to watch the movie since seeing Hawks’ sci-fi film The Thing From Another World (1951), and I was really struck by how much the two films had in common.
In each Hawks film, a group is stranded in the middle of nowhere with no immediate help coming, trying to shut down a literal or figurative monster. At the same time, the group dynamics are so reassuring and enjoyable that the viewer wishes to be there and be part of it, despite the danger.
A key moment in this regard comes just before the final confrontation, when Wayne, Martin, Brennan, and Nelson are relaxing in the jailhouse and sing a couple of songs. (A nice “through-line” from Hawks and Wayne’s previous Western is that one of the songs, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” uses instrumental music the film’s composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, had previously written for Red River.) On the surface, one might assume this is wasted time simply to showcase the two singers in the cast, especially given that the film runs a lengthy two hours and 21 minutes. But to the contrary, this sequence is one of the best in the film.
There’s something quite special in the characters just “hanging out,” underscoring the relationships and that these are men who can count on one another, as indeed they will need to very soon thereafter. It’s the single scene, lovingly photographed by Russell Harlan, that has lingered most in my memory in the decades since my first viewing.
Beyond that, there are so many other favorite moments, the best of which for me is a fast-paced shootout with Colorado and Feathers helping Chance out of a dangerous confrontation. It’s so beautifully choreographed that I can never resist rewinding and watching it a second time before continuing on with the rest of the movie.
The performances, like the rest of the movie, are spot-on. This is one of my favorite Wayne roles, as he is by turns assured, supportive, and, when dealing with Feathers, completely baffled. Rio Bravo follows in the footsteps of earlier Wayne Westerns, particularly Tall in the Saddle (1944) and Angel and the Badman (1947), where his tough character is turned upside down when dealing with a strong, direct woman. (There’s more on those two films in my 2018 column on favorite John Wayne films and leading ladies.) Dickinson and Wayne quickly build believable chemistry as the story plays out over a short time span.
The first time I saw the movie, I thought Nelson was the weak link in a polished cast, but over the years I’ve revised my opinion. He’s as perfect for his role as the rest of the cast, reminding me just a bit of Audie Murphy.
Martin, in particular, shows real acting chops as a tormented alcoholic trying to reform, and Brennan has some scene-stealing moments as grizzled Stumpy. Speaking of scene-stealing, the bit where Chance bends over and spontaneously kisses Stumpy’s balding head is definitely such a moment.
The terrific cast also includes Estelita Rodriguez, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and Bob Steele.
Viewers may notice that Harry Carey Jr. is billed in the opening credits, but he never actually shows up in the movie. Years ago my husband emailed Carey about this via Carey’s website, and Carey graciously responded, explaining that it was decided after filming that his character was extraneous to the story, so he ended up on the cutting-room floor. It’s too bad, but given the movie’s running time, I’m guessing it was the correct decision.
Elaborating on that, as mentioned above the film clocks in with a running time closer to two and a half hours than two. Although I’m generally a fan of shorter, fast-paced films, I have no issues at all with this movie’s running time; it flies by, and I appreciate every scene. I wouldn’t drop a second of what made it into the film’s final cut.
In summary, I consider Rio Bravo to be a perfect Western. Whether a viewer is brand-new to the genre or is a longtime fan, this film is most highly recommended.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.