When it comes to the classic westerns, ones that almost all clock in at well over two hours in run time it is not just idea, but a necessity that they prove to be watchable, because there is absolutely nothing worse than a movie that drags on in the context of already being incredibly lengthy. When it works it is something wonderful, like is the case with The Great Escape or with Seven Samurai. Fortunately, as a filmmaker Howard Hawks lives in a world where dialogue is always engaging and the plot perplexing and this is certainly the case with his classic star-driven western Rio Bravo, which is both incredibly well-made and highly entertaining. Within the matter of just under two and a half hours, viewers are teated to a variety of human identity issues being fleshed out and dealt with in great turn, while also avoiding the worrisome threat of being too preachy or misdirected. Of course, Rio Bravo is more than just a traditional western that happens to just be really cool to watch, it manages to comfortably move about the genre specifics, without really leaving the space of its narrative, in fact, this movie has arguably been the most closed in within terms of character movement, only depicting the individuals within the relation to the town, and more so, within concern to the town jail and hotel. Such a setup would be restrictive to most directors and performers, but within the world of a Howard Hawks film the more congested and restrictive the space the more he seems willing to absolutely blow the lid off of possibilities, whether it be a great turn at the comedic for John Wayne, or the wonderfully sentimental song number midway through the film. Far before I ever envisioned this blog as a regular endeavor, let alone planned to devote an entire month to the genre of westerns, many of the individuals whose taste in film I highly admired, referred to the western as being their favorite genre, and while I am not quite committed to that kind of admiration, watching Rio Bravo has certainly led to me heavily reconsidering how much I have thought my top ten films to be solidified. I would have to revisit my list of favorite all-time films, but considering how absolutely excellent Rio Bravo proved to be i would stand to call it my favorite western at the moment, although it is early in the month, with a ton of other classics on the docket so that is liable to change.
Rio Bravo begins with the stumbling and defeated The Dude (Dean Martin) walking into a bar sheepishly attempting to get a drink from anyone who will offer. When the wily and troublesome Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) thinks it hilarious to throw a coin into the spitoon and watch The Dude fish it out, in steps John T. Chance (John Wayne) the local sheriff to reprimand Joe for his childish and degrading behavior, which invariably leads to a fight, in which The Dude in a moment of clarity helps Chance take back control, eventually leading to the arrest of Joe. However, the run in with Joe is only one of Chance's problems and he, in fact, is having little success keeping a lid on the ruffians and wild folks who exist in and around his town. Hoping to get The Dude back on the right track he hires him back on as an assistant sheriff, along with Stumpy (Walter Brennan) in a hopes that their unlikely combination will help to avoid trouble in the town. Yet, when an old friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) comes into town, along with a new hired hand Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) only to see the dire state of Chance's town, he offers his services. Chance refuses, however, noting that it is almost certain death and his workers will be too preoccupied with thoughts of their families to serve in any fruitful capacity. Instead, after some prodding and jousting on both ends Chance ends up attaining the aid of Colorado to standup against Joe's brother Nathan (John Russell) and his crew of lackeys. Furthermore, Chance begins a relationship with Feathers (Angie Dickinson), as well as using Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and his hotel as a point of operations. While the singular focus is on moving trouble from the town, Chance is also quite aware of the necessity involved in making sure that The Dude stays sober, a decidedly hard task when The Dude admits that any stint without hard liquor results in his sadness about his past, however, with some stern words from Chance and a moment of success on The Dude's part he comes around and realizes his possibilities as a crime fighter. In the end Chance, The Dude, Colorado and eventually Stumpy use their small team to take on Nathan's entire posse, an endeavor made ever slightly easier with the aid of high powered explosives. In the end Chance and Feathers openly admit their feelings, while Stumpy and The Dude patrol the streets of the much calmer and more civilized town.
Whiskey and heavy drinking are of course one of the major tropes, or at the very least themes within most westerns, and while the consumption of alcohol in heavy amounts is often depicted within the genre, very little is done in the way of drawing attention to the issues of alcoholism or the heavy and continue abuse of liquor. Of course, the drunkard does emerge in films of this nature, but never in such a way as to be a main character, or one whose actions are explained and grounded. As such, Rio Bravo, while very much about Chance's own attempts at reigning in an out of control town, perhaps an extension of his psyche, or about Colorado's drive to assert his own young masculinity, ultimately, exists as a film about recovery. This recovery can of course be taken at a very literal level as The Dude Learns to manage his days without even the slightest of drinking which leads to him having varied mood swings and an absurd diet. He is written of throughout as an alcoholic, so much so, that only Chance seems to support his push towards being sober, suggesting that much as is the case with Alcoholics Anonymous style systems, that each individual needs a person to work them through the toughest of times and be a voice to engage with or a shoulder to lean on. Chance, as his name suggests, is a final vestige through which The Dude finds his salvation. Of course, he is not, by any means, the only character attempting to reinvent himself, but Hawks' directorial style seems to emphasize The Dude and his particular concern for turning over a new leaf. In many scenes the camera often lingers on The Dude as he fidgets and moves about the space, an unusual technique for the time, let alone the genre, however, perhaps the most obvious moment in which the narrative suggests that The Dude is attempting to redefine or reestablish himself comes when he looks at his reflection in the mirror, seeing himself shaved and clean is followed by his being attacked. In the past his confrontations with a former self would have led him to the bottle, yet when tied up he must learn to suffice without the crutch, eventually finding solace and comfort in music instead. The Dude and his movement from an addiction are central to the film, which is particularly intriguing since the film moves and feels like a western, while also being a very focused human drama.
Key Scene: The singing scene of course, so much musical excellence is occurring in that space, it is only a slight let down, however, that John Wayne does not join in the fun.