30 Great Westerns
Rio Bravo

Angie Dickinson and John Wayne in Rio Bravo.

"Sorry don’t get it done, Dude."

John Wayne, as John T. Chance in Rio Bravo, speaks these harsh words to his best friend, struggling alcoholic Dude (Dean Martin). Dude worries that he’s "no good" anymore following a surprise mugging by Nathan Burdett’s hired guns in a stable and subsequent rescue by Chance and Colorado (Ricky Nelson). Tortured with self-doubt and the D.T.’s, Dude returns to the bottle. As he sits in the jail about to imbibe, he hears Burdett’s gang playing the death march song and decides against self-destruction. "Shakes are gone . . . just because of a piece of music." He asks Chance to let him rejoin the team.

Chance agrees, and moments later, in an early form of a music video, Martin, his black hat tucked over his eyes with Rat-pack cool, Nelson, pimples dotting his chin and cheek and a guitar strapped around his shoulder, sing in contrasting styles, "My Rifle Pony and Me," and "Cindy." Walter Brennan (the goofy-limping Stumpy), a harmonica around his pouty gums, joins in the merriment and Wayne, drinking coffee and leaning with relaxed ease, smiles. An aura of male camaraderie resonates.

This is the pure Hawksian moment as men stand by their friends and face possible death with grace under pressure. They have Burdett’s "no good" brother locked in the jail and they won’t buckle. They are a group of professionals, insular, standing against the void of the outside world.

Hawks claimed that he made Rio Bravo as a direct challenge to the politics of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1951), in which Will Kane (Gary Cooper) surveys the town in a vain attempt to find guns to help him against Frank Miller, a man Kane sent to prison and who now wants him dead. Nobody in the town helps the sheriff and High Noon becomes a message film about our inhumanity. Hawks disliked the film intensely and felt that Cooper acted inappropriately: a professional never asks amateurs for help, a professional is "good enough" to do the job himself, or with the aid of fellow right-thinking professionals. By contrast, Hawks’ Chance refuses the help of Wheeler (Ward Bond) because his men are a bunch of "Well-meaning amateurs, most of them worried about their wives and kids."

No doubt, Rio Bravo is in dialog with this earlier western, but it is more than just a revision of Zinnemann’s politics; it is a film full of those wonderful Hawksian touches. Angie Dickinson as Feathers is Lauren Bacall of The Big Sleep (1946). She can trade barbs with Wayne, be as insolent with him as he is with her, and often embarrass him with her aggressiveness. Their moments together are touchingly funny as Dickinson, talking non-stop, admits that she talks "all the time," and Wayne, slightly abashed, comments, "You most certainly do." Earlier, in an intensely quiet moment of tenderness, Wayne wakes up in a hotel room to find Dickinson downstairs in the lobby, asleep in a chair. She has a blanket over her legs and a Winchester on her lap. He now realizes her love for him (she was watching guard) and gently carries her upstairs.

And in typical Hawksian fashion there are several great scenes stitched together. From scenes of character-- Dude’s struggles with the bottle (Dean Martin gives perhaps his best performance as a man who tries to regain his former skills and strong sense of self), and Chance’s love, allowing Dude to find himself and Feathers to forget her dance hall past (he throws her sexy tights out the window); to scenes of action--the drops of blood in a mug of beer that allows Dude to spot Wheeler’s killer hiding in the barroom rafters, and the front porch shootout in which Dickinson throws a flower pot through a window, Nelson pitches Wayne his Winchester, and together they mow down three of Burdett’s guns.

All-in-all, Rio Bravo is, I confess, my favorite western for it has a feel-good aura, a drive-in delight vibe. In this one, Hawks does get it done, dude.

--by Grant Tracey