In a small Texas town during the late 1860s, Presidio County Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) is holding Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), a drunken thug, for the murder of an unarmed man in a saloon fight. Joe is the brother of wealthy land baron Nathan Burdette (John Russell), who owns a big chunk of the surrounding county. Burdette’s men, mostly guns for hire, cut the town off to prevent Chance from getting Joe into more secure surroundings, waiting around for their chance to break him out of jail. Chance has to wait for the United States marshal to show up, and his only help comes from Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a toothless, cantankerous old deputy who guards the jail, Dude (Dean Martin), his former deputy, who’s spent the last two years stumbling around in a drunken stupor over a woman that left him, and a young gunman named Colorado (Ricky Nelson). While Hawks’ quintessential Western moves with patience and purpose it is always gripping. Sharp dialogue, fascinatingly flawed characters and an exciting central conflict fuel the story.
John Wayne and Angie Dickinson
The dialogue between these two sizzles. Dickinson is very sexy in this film, unexpectedly falling for the stubborn sheriff, who won’t let anyone else help him in his predicament. Dickinson’s Feathers is used to sparring in the company of men, fancying herself as a gambler. Wayne is the epitome of the hero of the American west, gruff and no-nonsense, but he shows unexpected sensitivity and romantic chops here. Just look at the way Wayne subtly conveys his emotions throughout this film. He doesn’t have a lot to say, but whenever he is in shot, expect his presence to have an impact. Along with Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers, this would rank amongst his greatest roles. I am a Wayne novice, but I was surprised how well this love angle worked within the film, especially considering how a similar fling – an outsider stopping through town – has left Dude heartbroken.
Dean Martin’s arc is compelling enough all on its own. While trying to work with Chance on keeping the peace and protecting the town and the murderer in their jail cell, he is going cold turkey for alcoholism.
He’s on the edge throughout the entire film. He’s embarrassed by his health, and often referred to by Burdette’s men as Borrachón (great drunkard). He has the best intentions, and Chance backs him, no matter how questionable his reliability is.
High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, is another of the great Westerns. The plot is actually very similar to Rio Bravo – a small town sheriff takes a stand against threatening outlaws – but both Wayne and Hawks hated it. Wayne has called the film ‘un-American’. They made this in response. Is it better? Well, I like them both for different reasons.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a classic Western without an epic final shootout. This one – the heroic foursome pitted against Burdette and his hired guns – is tense, but riddled with the humour that has been prevalent throughout the screenplay.
I was first introduced to Hawks when I saw The Big Sleep (written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Bracket, who also wrote Rio Bravo) back in high school during a unit on ‘Crime Fiction.’ Since then I have only seen his Red River, another magnificent Western. This great director’s ability to work in any genre (His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby are screwball comedies, The Thing From Another World a horror thriller) is indicative of his talents. He never loses sight that this is a character-driven drama within an enclosed environment and yet there is never a surrender of tension and conflict. Rio Brave is so engrossing, framed to perfection and made with such assured precision that the hefty runtime (141 minutes) just evaporates. Hawks directed the film at the veteran age of 62. It was his 41st feature film.
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22