This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.
I’ve seen a lot of Westerns. I actively seek out the genre for two reasons. Firstly, existing within a genre of B-pictures with lesser commercial prospects, the films often have a freedom to poke and prod at the nature of film and storytelling in ways films with more money put into them, and thus with more money expected in return, might not have the unexpected freedom for. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Western was historically perhaps the genre where America and its desires are most wont to play themselves out for audiences. Westerns explore a mythic version of traditional American life – some uphold it, some read it past itself to create untold postmodern myths, and some take a knife to the genre and skewer it for all to see.
Within all this, though, Rio Bravo may be the strangest Western I’ve yet seen. I can’t for the life of me decide if it’s a great film, or if it even wants to be one, but it’s undeniably effective, and furthermore, it’s undeniably effective in a way I’ve never seen even attempted in a “great” Western before. Knowing the history of Rio Bravo’s production reveals everything and nothing. First, Rio Bravo is famous as a counter-film to High Noon, a stark and cynical Western about slow-moving dread and difficult choices rapidly overwhelming a man without friends. Director Howard Hawks posited this as a more traditional Western, and thus, I had assumed going in, one with a righteous hero who stands up to the bad guys and has his whole posse join him. In the most conventional sense, that is Hawks’ film – the narrative could literally be summed up as such.
But then there’s John Wayne at the center, perhaps the cinema’s most forthright leading man of action. The film had all the makings of something very conventional, a love letter to classic Westerns. And in one sense, it is. The film is fundamentally optimistic in the strain of classic Westerns, and its characters and their morals are easy-to-describe, two things which cannot be said for the somewhat neo-realist High Noon.
In all this though, Rio Bravo has two unexpected surprises. First is exactly what Howard Hawks said the film would be, and yet the effect of this is something resolutely different than Hawks outlined before its release. It is a film about community and a town, or at least several people within it, coming together to fend off wrongdoers. Hawks said outright this was the purpose of the film before it was released, something he saw as resolutely traditional. I’m less certain. On one hand, it is traditional in that it favors certain broad-based notions of good and evil and never faltering between the two – it plays, as many Westerns do, like a fable in this regard. But in another regard, isn’t the notion of community very much absent in the American Western lexicon? Famous Westerns usually emphasize the myth of the individual. The lone sheriff. The man who rides into town when a problem arises. Rio Bravo is thoroughly, and steadfastly, a film about community. Wayne in particular does his fair share of heroic things, but he doesn’t so much save the say as exist in and around day-saving.
It is in this regard that the relationship between High Noon and Rio Bravo is tenser than we want to admit. For all High Noon’s opening-up self-inscribed American desires to reveal tension and dissent among an American no longer whole or one, it also rigidly champions the steadfast individual whose morality never wavers even when threatened. In a way then, both films, released after the heyday of the Western but before its revisionist reemergence, reflect the time period they were made. They were films in the wild years of the Western, where films were still expected and even held to sticking broadly to the moral structure of a Western, but they could in small ways poke and prod to subvert that form. High Noon did it with deep cynicism and tight craftsmanship. Rio Bravo does it in another way, something quite splendid, a gift from an old master taking time to enjoy himself a little and making a film about something the film world forgot long-ago: hanging out.
Hanging out? This is the second big surprise of Rio Bravo, and why it is again both resolutely what Hawks said it would be, a traditional Western far less cynical than High Noon, and in other ways far distant from most other Westerns and in fact quite radical in being so. Simply put, very little actually happens in Rio Bravo. There’s a deceptively simple premise about men and women held up in a town (mostly in the sheriff’s office) as men around them threaten danger and close in on them, a premise that sounds like the making of a great long-lost tight-and-tense B-western movie. John Carpenter clearly thought as much, and he made that film 15 years later, albeit set in the grimy, grungy world of contemporary LA: his Assault on Precinct 13 was a modern-day version of the same story rendered through tight, ruthless plotting and unnerving zombie-like foes inhabiting a landscape of slowly-mounting dread in the scariest present-day apocalypse of an urban jungle that side of The Terminator.
Naturally, Carpenter’s film was fitted to the fears of the day, positing a blood pact between racially segregated gangs to combine their forces and join together for one night in hopes of dismantling the moral authority – rendered there as an equally racially diverse band of cops and older criminals in one of the first films to switch the racial makeup of the conventional cop and criminal dynamics. The fear was the idea that, late-60s racial hope of progress now subsumed into increasing desperation in inner city neighborhoods fallen on deaf ears by the moral authority, if the poor urban gangs they inadvertently created were to campaign again for racial unity, they might now forego what didn’t work last time -working within the system – for seeking revenge and taking over. It was a scary reminder that elites have a vested interest, which they act upon to the point of oppression and the denial of human rights, in the poor splitting along racial lines, keeping them from any potential community and any attempt at radical action.
That was a bit of a tangent – my apologies, but that film illustrates the same idea as Rio Bravo filtered through a modern revisionist Western-style movie rendered subversive and conflicted as a reflection of larger tensions in society. Rio Bravo could have done this, but it had other ideas. Namely, lazing around. This is a cool film of ironic warmth. There’s a plot the characters pay attention to sometimes, as if remembering they are supposed to be doing something from time to time. But by and large they ignore conflict for large stretches and just talk – the main characters being a contemplative Wayne as the sheriff, Dean Martin as a former deputy struggling with alcoholism, young Ricky Nelson as a moral hired gun looking to avenge his employer, Angie Dickinson as Wayne’s strong-willed and funny love interest (very much a Hawksian woman), and Walter Brennan as the comic-relief Stumpy.
There’s a cheerfully lackadaisical sensibility to the film, as though it isn’t restrained by conventions of storytelling. In the wild man Western era where some freedom was afforded, Hawks decided to take this and do the unthinkable by just being there with a camera and elegiacally detailing a calm Western’s night, perpetuated of course by tense standoffs and shootouts. But those shootouts don’t play out like climaxes or events – more-like by-products of the characters getting a slight bit bored of talking on end and deciding to talk on the way to another location where it seems, by happenstance, a stand-off then occurs against the film’s will. The film, while seemingly traditional and even conservative, is also about the most radical, left-field thing it could be, especially when one considers how most Westerns were hopped up on their own action and reaction. This film kind of just sits and stews. Unlike so many other films, which demand to be heard, Hawks chooses to linger.
There are more conventional strengths to the film, such as a quietly harrowing image of a beer mug with blood dripping into it, to the opening minutes of the film which features a wordless standoff that plays like interpretive dance. These images are astoundingly well-constructed, the former implicitly connecting the prominence of alcohol in the West to death and the latter re-reading the machismo of Western heroes by having all the killing occur sans dialogue because, well, Western characters who spent their lives killing and trying not to be killed probably wouldn’t be all that interested or capable of talking to other people much anyway.
But then Hawks goes and has his characters spend the whole film talking! And not just talking, but often talking about nothing related to the main narrative. He subverts the potential for the masterfully-constructed scenes of conflict to signal a great Western or anti-Western by making, in a completely different way, just about the weirdest anti-Western ever made. The greatest pleasure of the film is the sense of hanging out with old friends, and seeing them in roles that call not for constant action but thought and reflection, something wholly opposite to traditional Western logic. Wayne in particular inhabits the facade of a no-nonsense sheriff but uses it to hold back, witness other characters interact, and think things, as we can see in his expression, without feeling the need to say them. In this regard, the film is at-odds with High Noon after all, which was a tense, cold, efficient, scary film much closer to, ironically, Assault on Precinct 13 even though that film was based on Rio Bravo. This isn’t a taut film, nor an efficient one – there are many moments that another great director would have cut for narrative flow, but Hawks kept them in for the visual comfort and poetic mood they provide and the way they let him and his narrative breathe as they might in real life. In a sense, the film for all its greater moralism, is actually far more radical than High Noon, albeit while that film could find the basis for an early revisionist Western, this one just does away with Western rootin and tootin entirely and gives us a syrupy, rambling theater piece.
That’s gutsy, and all the stranger for a director like Howard Hawks whose films like His Girl Friday were birthed on the effervescent tension of hearing characters talk over each other on end. He filmed those dialogue-driven movies like battlegrounds, letting each word cut through the celluloid like a knife through butter. Here, though, the conversations flow like molasses – characters take their time as others speak, are inhumanly kind, and never bat an eye when listening to someone else. It’s as if, angry at High Noon’s own angriness for the Western form, Hawks just went and made the only film he could: a Western so damn calm and un-angry that it ends up reading the genre past itself and just playing it like a theater piece or a play, completely illogical and unrealistic but undeniably effective as a study in mood-making.
If you doubt the subversive wit prevalent in the film’s overthrowing of the normal narrative pace of Westerns, just remember that Hawks had the guts to produce a classic Western where the second most prominent character is literally named “Dude”. In an era where the word was becoming associated less with old-school macho-men than young hooligans who spent time riding motorcycles, smoking weed, and cavorting with reckless endangerment, how’s that for a chill-out movie? It may be, after all, that this mastery of the mundane reflects one of the truest truths about a time period we never see in any films dedicated to that period – the truth of quiet people just enjoying each other’s company in a mundane and less active world. In other words, maybe the “Western” genre and all its action and grandstanding climaxes is a canard, a storybook and not a reality. For all Hawks’ claims to make a “traditional” Western, here he posits that maybe the “Wild West” was actually really boring – Hawks sees this and makes boring about as comforting as humanly possible.