by Jay Seaver
Even if you've never seen Rio Bravo, you've probably seen movies influenced by it. John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, for instance, is essentially a present-day remake. The basic premise probably predates this movie and the short story it's based upon, and while Carpenter's film is the most direct descendant, any number of action, war, horror, and sci-fi movies have the basic siege structure - small group of heroes waiting out an inevitable attack by a superior force. Few filmmakers have done it better than Howard Hawks does here.The specifics of the story are familiar - Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) has locked up Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for a cold-blooded murder, but half the town is on the payroll of Joe's brother Nathan (John Russell), a powerful and ruthless rancher. Chance's allies are Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a lamed jailor, and Dude (Dean Martin), the town laughingstock who used to be a crack shot, but crawled inside the bottle a year ago and is just now coming out. Arriving in town while Chance and company await the U.S. Marshals are a beautiful gambler (Angie Dickinson), a rancher (Ward Bond) who is an old friend of Chance's, and his chief hand (Ricky Nelson).
"One of the truly great westerns"
So, there you've got all your basic ingredients: A redoubtable hero, a pretty and resourceful girl, comic and potentially tragic sidekicks, the captured bad guy who taunts the heroes and the one roaming free who is backed up by a veritable army of gunfighters. Much of the movie plays out under an uneasy truce - Nathan and his men surrender their guns to Dude as they come into town, but it's reluctantly, with the undercurrent that next time, they'll have their weapons holstered. The sheriff and his deputies have a general timeframe one when the marshals might arrive, but it's just a guess, and the ticking clock is a double edged sword. The math is intractable: While every moment that passes is another moment that the Burdettes' men haven't attacked and brings Chance and company that much closer to the safety of the marshals' arrival, the probability of an attack coming soon goes up as Nathan grows more desperate.
Wayne is the movie's star, but Martin is its heart. Chance is able, smart, and aware of both his own limitations and those around him. He looks out for his friends, doesn't ask too much from them and still feels like crap when they get hurt for doing the right thing on their own. He's a sort of father figure to the rest, and thinks of himself that way; it makes him a little distant. Not aloof, but separate from the others and aware of it. While Chance is aware of how the rest look up to him, Dude is all to aware of how the others look down on him. We first see him as a pathetic drunk, crawling across the floor, willing to fish a coin out of the spittoon for another drink. When we see him next, he's gotten hold of himself, but he seems acutely embarrassed of what he'd become. The story of Rio Bravo is in many ways the story of Dude winning back his self-respect.
Compared to Chance and Dude, the other side is kind of faceless; we see a fiar amount of the Burdette brothers, but they're just bad apples, not bad in any unique way. Their goons are even more so; a lot of their nastiness comes from the looks of contempt a saloon keeper (whose establishment serves as the villains' meeting place) gives to Dude. Similarly, Stumpy is a kind of prefabricated element, but Walter Brennan slips this character on like a second skin. This kind of story needs a Stumpy, to serve as both comic relief and an experienced sounding board for the hero.
The film is directed by Howard Hawks, with a screenplay by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell. It's nicely paced, which is important - the audience has to feel time passing so that the inevitable battle is just around the corner, but without feeling like the story is being drawn out too long. That's why having Angie Dickinson around is nice; that her Feathers would develop any kind of romance with Chance over this movie's timeframe seems sudden, but it's a sweet, feminine counterpoint to the rest of the action. The only time things seem kind of padded is when a sing-along starts in the jail. Sure, this is probably how these guys would pass the time in the late 1800s, but it seems to be there more because Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin are in the cast than for versimilitude.But don't hold a couple of extraneous songs against a movie that is unfailingly engaging during the rest of its two-plus hours. It's one of the great westerns, one which stands so tall that makes a mark on movies as a whole, not just its own genre.
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originally posted: 06/08/05 03:08:02