Friday, 7 August 2015

Rio Bravo (1959)

In the earlier days of this blog I worked my way through a pack of John Wayne movies. They were mostly very slight affairs, cribbed from his 1930s career in Hollywood's "Poverty Row".

This movie is a rather different proposition. It was during the long period when Wayne was one of the world's most recognisable stars, with hits like Stagecoach, Sands of Iwo Jima, and The Searchers behind him, and others like True Grit still to come. It has star power behind the camera as well, in the shape of renowned director Howard Hawks.

Rio Bravo begins with an arrogant gunslinger shooting a man in cold blood. He's promptly arrested by Sheriff John Chance (Wayne, of course), but this is far from the end of the matter. It'll be more than a week before a US Marshal can reach the town to handle the case, and the murderer is brother to the richest man in the territory. There's no way this wealthy and ruthless land baron will stand by and allow his sibling to pay the consequences of his crime.

Thus the sheriff finds himself more or less besieged in his office as the land baron put his money and men to work on the problem of freeing his brother. And if that takes a few more killings, well that's a price the murderer's brother is willing to pay.

Sheriff Chance gets offers of help from several friends, but declines most of them. "Putting well-meaning amateurs in a fight with trained men will just get a lot more people killed.", he reasons. The only allies he accepts are Dude – a former gunfighter recovering from a two-year drinking spree – and Stumpy, a tough and garrulous old timer. Not everyone is going to accept being told to stay out of it though: a cool young hired gun named Colorado takes an interest, as does the feisty and tempestuous "Feathers", a young woman who takes a shine to the Sheriff.

Rio Bravo is well-acted and has a solid script with some snappy dialogue – especially from Angie Dickinson as Feathers. She is so good in the role that you almost forget she's more than twenty years younger than Wayne. Almost.

The film's only got two real weaknesses. The first is its depiction of two Mexican characters: they're good people with lots of positive qualities, but they are also pretty clearly "comedic ethnic sidekicks". This is, after all, a 1950s film. The second flaw is the climactic battle between Chance's group and the land baron's (much larger) forces. It's a curiously tepid and one-sided affair, without much tension. It's not a huge problem, but it is noticeable that the bad guys seem much more competent and menacing in earlier scenes.

These issues aside though, this is a well-made and enjoyable film. Wayne and Hawks apparently had a second stab at the concept in 1966 in El Dorado. I think I might need to track down a copy of that.

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