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“Rio Bravo”: Fellow Feeling, Human Frailty, and the Pleasure Principle

If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be “Rio Bravo.”

—Robin Wood in
Howard Hawks (1968)

“One of the most purely pleasurable films ever made,” says Dave Kehr of Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo in a recent New York Times round-up of metropolitan area film fare. Kehr is absolutely right, though some may find the choice of words problematic. How does one find pure pleasure in a picture that begins with a drunk groveling for money in a spittoon and goes on from there to a beating that causes the mindless murder of the man who intervened? Then there’s the lethal mayhem that results when the jailed killer’s wealthy brother hires a small army to liberate him. The joys of Rio Bravo, however, have less to do with gunfire and violent death than with the enlightened direction of Howard Hawks and the embattled camaraderie of a group of unlikely heroes led by John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance.

Whatever the genre — western, gangster, film noir, newspaper, war, musical, screwball, or romantic comedy — pictures directed by Hawks belong at or near the top of the list, and if anything demonstrates the massive insult to cinematic intelligence that is the American Film Institute’s ranking of the 100 Best Films, it’s the fact that Bringing Up Baby is the only work by Hawks that made the list (and barely, at that). Worse yet, High Noon (1952) is ranked 27th while its hands-down superior, Rio Bravo, the picture that one of the most intelligent and literate writers on film, the late Robin Wood (1931-2009), put at the top of his death-bed list of great films, didn’t even crack the almighty 100.

The Anti-High Noon

John Wayne once called High Noon “the most un-American thing” he’d ever seen. While he’s referring to the fact that it was written by Carl Foreman, a black-listed ex-communist, and produced by Stanley Kramer, a liberal, Wayne also shares Hawks’s thought: “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife.”

Hawks is talking about characters played by Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The idea of an “un-American movie” with a steady, stalwart American icon running around in it like a “chicken with his head cut off” is ridiculous, as Hawks would no doubt agree, if he’d had a chance to reword what he was saying. For Robin Wood, High Noon is “the archetypal ‘Oscar’ film,” the product of three men (director Fred Zinneman, writer Carl Foreman, and producer Stanley Kramer) “whose work has been characterized by those Good Intentions with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. Mental intentions [Wood’s italics], not emotional or intuitive intentions: intentions of the conscious, willing mind, not of the whole man.” According to Wood, the emotional and intuitive wholeness that High Noon lacks is what makes Rio Bravo superior “as a record of lived and felt experience.”

The Moment

“In films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments,” James Stewart told an audience at the British Film Theatre in 1972. “Not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part — you produce moments.”

Rio Bravo is full of choice moments like the ones in which Angie Dickinson’s card sharp, Feathers, sexually disarms John Wayne, the seemingly implacable “tower-of-strength” she affectionately, half-teasingly calls John T. And there are fractured moments as swift and subtle as the range of looks — compassionate, disappointed, proud — the sheriff gives the recovering-alcoholic Dude (movingly played by Dean Martin) as he falters, begins to find only to lose himself, and finally shows signs of pulling himself together.

There is one moment, one sequence, that particularly illuminates “the lived and felt experience” Wood refers to when comparing the virtues of Rio Bravo with the limitations of High Noon. It also happens to be the sequence most often cited by people like those responsible for the AFI list as evidence that Rio Bravo is unworthy of serious consideration. When the news got round that the terminally ill Robin Wood ranked Hawk’s western at the top of his final Top Ten, the reaction was disbelieving and scornful. A typically sloppy reaction (from a film blog called hollywood-elsewhere) begins, “What is that? You’re about to leave the earth and meet the monolith and the greatest film you can think of is Rio Bravo? A zero-story-tension hangin’ movie that constantly subjects viewers to screechy-voiced Walter Brennan, and which features the very soft-spoken, adolescent-voiced Ricky Nelson singing a duet with Dean Martin?” A similarly patronizing if somewhat less klutzy response comes from Wood’s hometown newspaper, the Toronto Star, two months after his death in December 2009: “John Wayne plays a small-town sheriff who rounds up a drunk (Martin), a punk kid (Nelson), and a raspy codger (Brennan) to battle bad guys who are threatening his town …. Pop stars Martin and Nelson crooned together on the sappy ditty, ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me.’”

The “sappy ditty” and the way it simply, nicely happens is the point at which I bonded with Rio Bravo. People with a biased or limited view of what “art” is supposed to be instantly write off the singing scene as a crass attempt to exploit two pop stars whose presence is intended to bolster the box office: Dino, the forever sloshed Las Vegas Rat Pack crooner, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Ricky, America’s favorite kid brother and 1959’s latest Teen Idol.

For a start, no one “croons” in this scene. Martin’s Dude is on his back smoking a cigarette, his hat brim down over his eyes, when he starts to quietly sing, and as he does, it’s as if he’s making the song up, feeling it, as he goes along. Nelson, as a young gunfighter called Colorado, warms to the song and the singing with a smile from the heart, strums his guitar, and at a nod from Dude takes the next chorus while Stumpy, the “screech-voiced Walter Brennan” plays the harmonica and Wayne looks on, a tin cup of coffee in his hand, smiling, simply enjoying the harmonious spontaneity of the moment, like a stand-in for the audience, or that part of it not predisposed to dismiss the scene as Hollywood hype.

In fact, Hollywood is exactly what’s happening, and the rousing song that follows (“Get Along Home Cindy”) brings everything closer to the terms of Wood’s claim that Rio Bravo “justifies the existence of Hollywood” because “The whole of Hawks is immediately behind it, and the whole tradition of the western, and behind that is Hollywood itself.” Three generations of performers covering a span of 30 years in the saga of American popular culture are coming together in, to use Wood’s words, “a bond of fellow-feeling through the shared experience of the music.”

And what makes the moment, this shared sense of the world in a fine balance, all the more precious is the presence of the killer in the adjoining cell waiting for the invading force of his brother’s hired guns to set him free and destroy his jailers and anyone else who gets in the way. For the duration of the song, this family of men is sheltered from the dead zone of the outside world in the timeless confines of a Hawks continuum of other moments, like aglow-with-love Lauren Bacall singing “How Little We Know” to Bogart in To Have and Have Not, or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn singing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to an appreciative leopard; or Humphrey Bogart having the time of his life posing as a nerdy bibliophile in The Big Sleep. For Wood, this four-minute scene in Rio Bravo “is perhaps the best expression in Hawks’s work of the spontaneous-intuitive sympathy which he makes so important as the basis of human relations.”

Other Moments

Admitted, there are times early on when Rio Bravo seems slow and stagey and you’re tempted to urge the actors to get on with it. And Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as the effusive Mexican hotelier is borderline (no pun intended) embarrassing. And Ricky is (just as well) no Brando or even Steve McQueen. And yes, Walter Brennan may grate on the nerves, but he too has a life in the larger culture, not only as Grandpa Amos McCoy in the sitcom, The Real McCoys, but as Bogart’s alcoholic sidekick in To Have and Have Not. Then there’s the mannered, edgily charming performance of Angie Dickinson, whose moves occasionally suggest the quirky body language of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall 15 years down the road.

There is much much more to be said about Rio Bravo, though the most articulate and intelligent discussion I know of is in Robin Wood’s 1968 book, and the most succinct is in Garry Giddins’s collection of reviews, Warning Shadows, which ends with Dude and Stumpy  “strolling into the fantasy world of incandescent Hollywood, where everyone ends up content and whole.”


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