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My Top 60- No 12: ’Rio Bravo’ (1958)


So, to the 2nd western in my favourite movie list, and the first (but not the last) John Wayne film. ‘Rio Bravo’ is a film I saw very recently at the National Film Theatre in London and I think it holds up remarkably well.

It has an interesting history too. It was made by veteran filmmaker Howard Hawks, who was a kind of everyman director having  a career that spanned from 1916 to 1970, and during that time he covered pretty much every genre from gangster films (‘Scarface’ (1932) ), sci-fi (‘The Thing from Another World (1952), musicals (the simply wonderful ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953) and westerns (‘The Outlaw’ (1943). In fact, his last directed film was 1970’s ‘Rio Lobo’, which was in fact a remake of ‘Rio Bravo’ itself.

Anyway, cut a long story short, it was Howard Hawks who disliked the Gary Cooper western ‘High Noon’ (1952) which he regarded as ‘Unamerican', and he had an ally in that in Duke Wayne. This was at the time of the McCarthy UnAmerican Activities Committee hearings in the USA, and ‘High Noon’ (written by ex-Communist Member Carl Foreman) was and is generally regarded as an allegory of those times. Hawks and Wayne wanted to make a western that was totally unlike ‘High Noon’, and in that they really succeeded.

‘Rio Bravo’ has a pretty classic set up. Badman Joe Burdette (Claude Atkins) kills an innocent bystander and Sheriff John T Chance (great name by the way!) played by Duke locks him up, guarded by old timer Stumpy (a brilliantly grizzled Walter Brennan) whilst they wait for marshals to turn up to take him away. Of course, Burdette’s nasty brother (John Russell) is desperate to break him out so a rear-guard action is needed. Duke is also supported by a drunk Dude (that’s his name) played convincingly by Dean Martin in probably his best film role, and young buck Colorado played by Rockabilly star turned actor Ricky Nelson. A western would not be a western without a gal of course, so Angie Dickinson turns up in one of her early roles as Feathers (she wears them a lot as well as her black tights) who takes a shining to a rather shy Duke.

The movie is over 140 minutes long, but you don’t notice as you do warm to these unlikely band of brothers (and sister). Duke Wayne’s character only wants people to help him who are strong and could do a job. Dude deals with his alcoholism whilst Feathers slowly seduces Duke over a series of meetings. Walter Brennan’s turn as Stumpy is probably the highlight as he constantly moans that “no one tells me anything here” as he threatens to blow away anyone who comes near the jailhouse.

The only drag in proceedings is when Howard Hawks indulges both Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in them crooning to make up time, but it was unnecessary as the film goes out a good old lick.

Some have tried to claim that ‘Rio Bravo’ is the best western ever made. That is nonsense but it is still one of my favourite westerns and well worth catching whenever it shows.

Tags: British Film Institute, Westerns, John Wayne, Film reviews, Rio Bravo, Angie Dickinson, Communism, Howard Hawks