Western RoundUp: Rio Bravo (1959)

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.

Rio Bravo (1959) Movie Poster

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.

Rio Bravo (1959) John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance
John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo (1959)

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). 

Ricky Nelson, John Wayne, and Dean Martin Rio Bravo (1959)
Ricky Nelson, John Wayne, and 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.

John Wayne as Sheriff Chance & Angie Dickinson as "Feathers" in Rio Bravo (1959)
John Wayne as Sheriff Chance & Angie Dickinson as “Feathers”

“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.

Ricky Nelson & John Wayne in a shootout Rio Bravo (1959)
Ricky Nelson & John Wayne in a shootout

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.

Walter Brennan & John Wayne Rio Bravo (1959)
Walter Brennan & John Wayne

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.

Dean Martin Rio Bravo (1959)
Dean Martin

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.

Ricky Nelson Rio Bravo (1959)
Ricky Nelson

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.

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11 Responses to Western RoundUp: Rio Bravo (1959)

  1. Vienna says:

    Terrific review of a classic western. I agree it is perfect! And the camaraderie is wonderful.

  2. When Rio Bravo is on television, I tell the family that I’m only going to watch until Bing Russell is dispatched or until John T. drags Claude Akins off to the pokey. I never think I am lying to them, but I am.

  3. Michael T Fisher says:

    Mom was on the set for a day. She was able to meet Wayne, Brennan, and Martin. Being 17, she was disappointed Nelson wasn’t there that day. Also, Paul Newman was visiting the set that day.

  4. Walter says:

    Laura, a really good write-up of one of my favorite movies. I agree with you so much about this movie. Along with you, it is in my opinion, one of the perfect Western Movies. RIO BRAVO(filmed 1958, released 1959) is also my daughter’s favorite John Wayne movie. Also, she is a fan of Dean Martin, especially in this movie. Yes, this Classic Movie has been shown a lot on TV since it was sold to local stations, with a block of other Warner Bros. movies in the mid-1960’s. As far as I know, RIO BRAVO never had a prime time network television premiere. KAIT Channel 8 used to show this block of 1958-60 movies a lot in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. If my memory serves me right, I first saw RIO BRAVO on Channel 8 in 1969. I thought it was really good then, and I still do, and always will. This movie was the first that I taped off of television with my beta recorder. It was playing on HBO at the time.

    I think it is neat that Michael T. Fisher’s Mother was on the RIO BRAVO set(I presume it was at Warner Bros. Burbank Studios, where interiors were shot). I had a friend who was an extra in RIO BRAVO during the filming, in May-July, 1958. My friend, Dusty Richards, was an Arizona cowboy and he was the real deal. His Mother was afraid that he would become a saddle-bum, so he went to college to get a degree. While attending Arizona State University in Tempe, he made extra money as an extra actor in movies. He enjoyed the work, especially the day the warehouse blew up on the set of RIO BRAVO. He said, “I mean, it was an explosion of explosions. So here comes the pink snow. Somebody had stored some damned pink paper in that thing. It ruined the whole scene. I learned some new swear words from that director Howard Hawks. He was having a fit. They had to build another warehouse and blow it up.” Dusty Richards(1937-2018) later became a Western novelist extraordinaire.

    Look forward to your next write-up. Stay safe and healthy.

  5. Barry Lane says:

    Nothing much to add, but your anecdote about the dog was more than welcome.

  6. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you all for your comments! I’m so glad to know others love this movie as I do.

    Vienna, thank you! It’s a great movie to “hang out” with.

    Patricia, I know what you mean. Once you start you just can’t stop!

    Michael, what a wonderful story about your mother being on the set. Thank you so much for sharing that.

    Walter, I’m glad to know you think it’s perfect also, and that love for the film is shared with your family, just as it is in my own family. I was very interested to read the info you shared on RIO BRAVO’s TV history — and I love that it was the first thing you recorded on your Beta recorder. (For me, it was the Western miniseries THE CHISHOLMS starring Robert Preston. Obviously those first recordings are a big memory for us — and what fun in each case it was a Western.) It’s quite remarkable to have two different people comment on this film who knew someone who was on the set as a visitor or employee. Great story about your friend, thank you!

    Barry, thank you so much for reading and your nice comment. Chance has been a wonderful member of our family for 13 years now.

    Best wishes,

  7. Jerry Entract says:

    Better late than never, I suppose! Great review of one of my favourite movies too, Laura.
    I was 11 when the film received General Release in the UK, my family had recently moved to a new area and I immediately became friends with the kids next door. One of the first things we did together was get on our bikes and go to see “RIO BRAVO” on the BIG screen. It was a hit for me right off.
    I was already a big Wayne fan and also collected Ricky Nelson singles. Many things from the film hit me between the eyes- sexy Angie Dickinson’s beauty and sassy yet vulnerable, the Old Tucson location, Dimitri Tiomkin’s haunting score and so much more!
    I introduced my wife to the film during the first ‘lockdown’ last March and she loved it too.

  8. Laura says:

    Hi Jerry!

    It’s alway wonderful to hear from you! I shouldn’t be surprised that this is also one of your favorite movies, but I’m glad to hear that it’s so. I absolutely loved your anecdote of riding your bike to the movies to see RIO BRAVO with the neighbor kids. It seems as though this film has very personal memories for many of us in a variety of ways.

    I’m also glad you were able to share it with your wife and hope it made lockdown a bit better!

    Best wishes,

  9. Mmmm, I do love this movie. It’s right next to The Sons of Katie Elder as my favorite Wayne westerns, and I really don’t get tired of it. As you say, even though these characters are stuck in a truly scary situation, I just want to be friends with them and hang out. Which is why the singing scene works so well — it gives us what we want, a few quiet minutes to just be with these awesome guys.

  10. Laura Grieve says:

    Hi Rachel!

    My Wayne fan son loves THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER but it’s one of those I’ve never seen all the way through. My kids would watch Wayne films like MCLINTOCK!, HATARI!, HELLFIGHTERS, and KATIE ELDER so often that I needed a little distance from them, seeing them in bits and pieces, before sitting down to watch them myself all the way through. (I was often taking advantage of them watching those films to work, or I would have been watching them as well!) I’ve been watching my way through unseen ’40s Wayne films over the last couple years, but I really need to add in these titles. Thanks for the reminder.

    RIO BRAVO is such a special film. Every time I see it, it feels a bit as though I’m having a reunion with friends.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Best wishes,

  11. Pingback: Western RoundUp: Will Penny (1967) | Classic Movie Hub Blog

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