During the 1930s and 40s, Howard Hawks was an unstoppable force of nature churning out a string of classics year after year: Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Balls of Fire, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Red River. All these titles stand as a collective testament to his prowess.
Over a decade later, Rio Bravo is a film that reflects something of the mastery Howard Hawks still held as a filmmaker making his way through every interlude with impeccable skill. It showcases his ability to string together scenes in a perfect rhythm, balancing humor with tension, romance with conflict, and making the western into a thoroughly entertaining experience once more. To say Rio Bravo is Hawks’ greatest films is not too far off the truth. He makes it so easy, the way he constantly tracks with his characters in space — often just talking — sometimes serious others times not, and it’s all so fluid, natural, and fun. It’s what makes the film, that’s over two hours, run seamlessly like the sweetest of liqueurs.
The script courtesy of Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman is a bounty of inspiration and amusement. One such moment includes the perfect meet-cute between John T. Chance (John Wayne) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) when she catches him in a compromising position with a pair of red bloomers. From that point on their dynamic is constantly churning with energy.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s score takes some cues from his earlier work Red River (also with Hawks) including the addition of the hauntingly sorrowful notes of “El Deguello.” With such talent as Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, it also makes the prospect of a song a rich opportunity and Hawks finds ways to weave a musical aside into his film, showcasing the especially memorable tune, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.”
Meanwhile, Hawks builds on this almost cartoonish mythology of the West where every person of interest lives life with a nickname spending as much time jawing and bickering as they do gunslinging. A great deal of that vibrancy is provided by the actors themselves with John Wayne as our anchor. Walter Brennan and Ward Bond prove to be his wizened counterparts while Dean Martin, as well as newcomers Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson, hold their own against the old vets. It’s great fun to watch Dickinson spar with Wayne and Nelson lends his matinee idol looks to a laconic role as young gun “Colorado.” In an inspired bit of casting, Dean Martin plays a drunk and Brennan takes up his post in the jailhouse as a crotchety old man. It all fits nicely together.
But the question many engaged viewers might ask is whether or not Rio Bravo is a response to the earlier western High Noon. The concise answer is “yes” but that probably is not enough. It’s up to the viewer to discern which example is more truthful and honest in its portrayal of humanity. And High Noon certainly is a somber portrait full of doubt and inner turmoil. However, Rio Bravo is probably just as compelling because of its relational dynamics. John Chance is the sheriff, and as sheriff, he has a certain obligation to uphold the law. That means keeping murderer Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) behind bars. He’s the no-nonsense harbinger of justice that we expect and because he’s John Wayne he’s also tough as nails.
But that’s what makes the first scene of the film so crucial. It’s notable because it begins with no dialogue, opening up on the town drunk in a saloon that also gets a visit from sheriff John T. Chance. Whether it’s an act of charity or disdain Chance saves El Borrachon’s self-respect only to get bashed over the head in return.
However, this moment is vital in how it sets up Chance’s character. Yes, he maintains a rough even grouchy exterior but looking closer, you see something else. He holds onto his friendships pretty tightly, namely old reliable Stumpy (Brennan) who he bickers with like an old married couple. Then his pal Wheeler (Bond) who comes into the bottled up Texas town with a load of supplies.
And they’re not the only ones. Chance looks to turn away a woman who’s got her face plastered on wanted posters, but slowly shows an affinity towards her. He certainly would not admit it at first but he ultimately does care for her deeply. Also, one of his most faithful allies is the spirited hotel owner Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) who is always ready to come to the sheriff’s aid while simultaneously talking his ear off.
Lastly, we go back to the Borrachon who was once Chance’s deputy but lost his sobriety in pursuit of a girl. Honestly, many people would not blame Chance for giving up on this man as a lost cause, and at several junctures, it looks like he has. But the bottom line is that he never does and in his own ornery way, he sticks by his old compadre — never deserting him or doubting him in crucial moments.
Thus, when we put High Noon up against Rio Bravo it’s not a weak sheriff versus a stalwart sheriff in the conventional sense as Hawks and Wayne might have supposed. However, what makes Chance strong are the people he surrounds himself with. In a way, when he is weak, then he is strong because he’s surrounded by people who are faithful and beholden to him. Yes, he’s still John Wayne and he’s one deadly man to cross, but he’s a lot more lethal with friends guarding his back. And that’s a testament to the people he surrounds himself with and also the ones who gravitate towards him. You get the sense that these are not fickle relationships — even in the cinematic sense. The characters can spend as much time ribbing each other as they do toting a gun through town. And perhaps the most telling part is that as an audience we grow to cherish these characters in a similar way. They’re fun to spend time with and that makes Rio Bravo a true gem.