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Movie Review: Rio Bravo

Rio Bravo (Warner Bros., 1959)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett based on the short story by B.H. McCampbell

A month or so ago, some circles started calling 2007 the year that the Western became cool again. This was mainly due to the fact that two, count them, two whole films came out set in this beloved genre: 3:10 To Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James. Granted, both films were jizzed all over by the critics, rightfully so, and in the end, two great films from any genre coming out in the same year is pretty much a miracle. I mean can you name two great comedies or horror films that have come out this year? Still, neither film lit up the box office or proved that the audiences were clamoring for steel toed boots and cowboy hats, so we’ll see if this critical upheaval lasts beyond 2007, but it was nice to see a couple of cool kick ass cowboy films come out any way you look at it.

So, I started feeling like maybe it was time that I actually sat down and watched a film I’m sad to say I have never seen before, a film that a lot of people consider to be the greatest western of all time, Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic, Rio Bravo. I was even given a copy of the new Ultimate Edition they released on DVD a couple of months ago, and I finally watched it. So, do I agree with the masses; read on, my loyal followers, read on.

One problem with watching a classic for the first time nearly fifty years after it was released is that it reeks all over the place of deja vu. The film has become such a staple for so many directors and writers over the years that it has been rehashed, updated, and literally ripped off countless times since its release. John Carpenter did two modern updates alone, the great Assault on Precinct 13 and the horrid Ghost of Mars. He actually did three if you count the 2005 remake of Precinct that he produced. Rio Bravo is by no means the only film that has suffered this fan love over the years; Kurosawa has three or four films that have been repeatedly referenced to or flat out remade. In the end, you just have to try your best to not hold this against it, but it’s a strange feeling nonetheless.

John Chance (John Wayne) is the sheriff of a small town, and he’s kept most of the riff raff out until Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) comes into town and murders one of the citizens right in front of him. They arrest Burdette, which leads to a whole assortment of problems, since Joe’s brother, Nathan (Joe Russell), is one of the richest people in the area, and will do anything to get his brother out of jail. This includes bringing in hired assassins to take Chance and his men out, and when that doesn’t work, he just shows up with his own posse to free his brother.

Chance is also a little short on the manpower. His deputies include a crazy old hoot, Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and a reformed drunk, the Dude (Dean Martin). He gets some help along the way in the form of a young gunslinger that goes by the name Colorado (Ricky Nelson) after his former employer (Ward Bond) is gunned down by one of the Burdette’s hired guns.

This setup leads to the big showdown at the end where Chance and his men are heavily outnumbered by Burdette’s posse, but find creative ways to even the odds. The action set piece at the end is what most people remember about the film, and understandably so. It’s a lot of fun watching Wayne, Martin, Brennan, and Nelson outwit the bad guys leading to them saving the day.

Quentin Tarantino has said in the past that this is one of the three films that have inspired him over his career, and it’s not hard to see why. Howard Hawks, one of the best of the studio directors, loved to have a lot of dialogue in his films. Jules Furthman’s script is packed full of witty exchanges between all of the main characters, and an assortment of colorful supporting characters show up to add to the fun. My personal favorite is Pedro Gonzalez- Gonzalez (Carlos Robante); the exchanges between him and Wayne are priceless.

What surprised me the most about Rio Bravo is how unconventional it is for a Western. The big shootout only takes up the last twenty minutes or so of a 144-minute film. Various subplots take up the rest of the film including a warrant being put out for a dirty poker player and a love story between Chance and the lovely Feathers, a very cute and young Angie Dickinson. Sorry, De Palma fans, she does not have a shower scene; this is 1959 after all. The film can seem to drag at times, but overall I found most of the smaller stories enjoyable, and in the end they all kind of wrap themselves up in a style that actually plays a big part in the final showdown.

Is this the best western ever made? I can’t say that. I can think of a handful of better ones off the top of my head (High Noon, Unforgiven, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, etc.). However, it is very original for the genre especially at a time when a slew of these films were being churned out. There is a lot of time spent on the average citizen stuck in the midst of all of this craziness that was going on, and that ends up adding a breath of fresh air to a genre that was getting more repetitive every year.

The acting is a lot better than I thought it would be. John Wayne had established his cowboy persona so well at this point, it might seem like a cakewalk to most. However, he is aided well with the great script and the direction of Hawks. Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson are a lot of fun as well. I have only seen Martin in the underwhelming “Rat Pack” films and the terrible Cannonball Run movies, so it goes to show that even a less than average actor can do well in a good film; hell, Keanu Reeves has proved that countless times over the years. I was a little less than impressed with the musical duo number between Martin and Nelson; it just seemed out of place. However, I guess you can’t have Martin and Nelson together without one song.

So, while in the end, I didn’t feel that Rio Bravo was the masterpiece that many make it out to be, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a good western romp to throw in the DVD player at anytime, Rio Bravo will more than help your cause. It’s definitely a film from the genre that should be seen by all western fans.


Sam Loomis

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