Classic Movie Review: Rio Bravo (1959)

Title: Rio Bravo
Release Date: April 4, 1959
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: Armada Productions

I was predisposed to hate this movie not just because the politics of a John Wayne Western tend to be loathsome but because it was made in response to High Noon, a movie I like that critiqued the blacklisting of Hollywood artists during the Red Scare. Wayne himself predictably declared that High Noon was “un-American” and wanted to make a movie portraying his vision of American machismo. Curiously, both France’s Remove term: Cahiers du Cinéma  and England’s Sight and Sound selected Rio Bravo for their greatest films lists and not High Noon, but the American Film Institute list includes only High Noon.

In Rio Bravo, Wayne is John T. Chance the sheriff of a Texas town who arrests the bratty Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder.  The problem is that Joe’s older brother is a wealthy land baron who has his men surround the town and make several attempts to release Joe. Chance has to rely only on the help of his deputies while they wait for the Marshall to take Joe away.  There’s Dude (Dean Martin), a recovering alcoholic with the shakes, the old and crippled Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and the young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson). Chance also forms a romance with a sassy young widow, Feathers (Angie Dickinson).

The movie works as a collection of successful Western tropes crafted together. This is not a criticism as not everything needs to me innovative to be good, just sometimes need to bring things that worked together in new ways.  I like the easy camaraderie among Chance, Dude, Stumpy, and Colorado.  Martin’s acting performance is particularly good in this film (and why has Robert Downey, Jr. not starred in a Dean Martin biopic?).  There’s a great scene where Rat Pack crooner Martin and teen idol Nelson sing a duet, a nice nod to the pop culture of the 1950s.  Angie Dickinson looks and acts like a 1950s woman, but somehow that works too.  And I think I’d love to see a movie where Brennan plays every character as his cackling old galoot.

All in all, Rio Bravo is better than I expected, and probably a great example of the classic Hollywood Western for a novice viewer, but it won’t be getting anywhere near my own all-time favorite movie list.

Rating: ***