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Thursday, 19 April 2012

Western Greats - Rio Bravo

"Well made but awfully familiar," were the words of The New York Times, and Time magazine declared that, "It is as long and tedious as five TV westerns laid end to end."

It might surprise you to know that the movie they are talking about is the Howard Hawks classic, Rio Bravo. And whilst it may be true that the 1959 movie may not be anything new, the fact is that  in the hands of Howard Hawks and star John Wayne the movie becomes greater than the sum of its parts - there is excitement, tension, the pleasure of the western landscapes and that old chestnut of good triumphing over evil. Hawks of course was so pleased with the film that he loosely remade it in 1966 and El Dorado and then again in 1970 with Rio Lobo.

Rio Brave came after Hawks had taken a break from directing following the failure of his 1955 movie, Land of the Pharaohs, a movie that almost ended his career and Hawks thouight it was a safe bet for his comeback to be a western starring the biggest western star of them all. Alongside John Wayne Hawks cast Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. The movie was shot between May and July 1958 with Old Tuscon, Arizona as the main location. The director was inspired by Gary Cooper's High Noon in which a sheriff stood alone against a group of desperadoes.

'Cooper ran around trying to get help and no one would give him any. And that's a kind of silly thing to do because in the end he could do the job himself. And so I decided to take a different viewpoint.' Howard Hawks.

Wayne famously hated High Noon and claimed that Cooper's character was went against the very creed of the true westerner - a man who could stand alone and face whatever was thrown at him. High Noon was, Wayne said, un-American. The actor would also state that he did not regret helping run the High Noon writer, Carl Foreman, out of the country during the Un-American activity hearings.

However it wasn't only High Noon that influenced the movie and the central situation of a lawman holding a prisoner under siege had been done in 1957's excellent 3-10 to Yuma.

Howard Hawks deliberately emphasized character over plot in Rio Bravo - perhaps he realized that TV westerns had by this period played out all the plots there were, and this is the biggest strength of the movie. John Wayne is well, John Wayne but he's excellent at it and Dean Martin's haunted gunman maybe one of the best roles he has ever played. Ricky Nelson does okay but he was only cast as a heartthrob to get the youngsters into the cinemas. And as with every film he appears in Walter Brennen steals the show. Hawks deliberately chose to not develop the characters of the bad men which made the western stand out since the bad men in most westerns of the period were well developed and often stole the show - think Jack Palance is Shane (1953). In most Fifties westerns the bad guys were more colorful and extravagant that the good guys but not with this movie and right from the start it is with our three heroes that the focus remains.

Despite the critics Rio Bravo was a success - it revitalized Howard Hawks' career and it ended the year just outside of the top ten money makers on the North American market. And it has since gone onto become an undisputed classic of the genre - The film achieved additional notoriety in the 90s when Quentin Tarantino revealed that he uses it as a litmus test for prospective girlfriends.

The film is available in DVD in several different versions but it it the special edition which is the most interesting  - There's a great  commentary by John Carpenter and Richard Schickel, renowned director Carpenter and film critic Schickel explore how this legendary Western was an extension of Hawks' own personality and why it's considered such an influential classic toda. It also contains several documentaries, most interesting of which is a 1973 show looking at Howard Hawks and his legacy.

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

I enjoyed this film when I saw it again recently. I like Wayne better when he plays a character with a sense of humor; it brought out a warmth in him that makes his "cooler" performances (as in THE SEARCHERS) less appealing.

I've never understood quite what he had against this movie. There would be nothing unAmerican about a community coming to the support of a lawman in trouble. I've thought that Wayne was objecting to a western town's refusal to do that as a betrayal of the western tradition and therefore (coming from a left-of-center writer) politically suspect.