(This is the 47th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
You never know what will be considered a classic in the future. I first saw Rio Bravo on TV when I was a kid, and I loved it, as I have every time I have seen it since then. But it would never have occurred to me on that first viewing that I was watching a classic. Even later, Rio Bravo would have been a guilty pleasure if I believed in such things. Howard Hawks was an acclaimed Hollywood director (and over time, I came to realize he was one of my own very favorites), John Wayne the biggest of stars, but Rio Bravo wasn't thought of as their best work, alone or together. And the presence of actors like Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson didn't exactly help (they are all wonderful in Rio Bravo ... well, Ricky is only OK ... but really, do you think a movie is a classic if all you know is that Dean Martin plays a drunk, Ricky Nelson plays a gunslinger named Colorado, Police Woman is a woman of mystery, and everything stops in the middle of the film so Dino and Ricky can sing a couple of songs with Walter Brennan accompanying them?)
The thing is, Rio Bravo is fun ... maybe that's one reason it wasn't always taken seriously.
This is my third and final Howard Hawks film. It contains the basic elements that I like in all his movies: witty banter, communities of men, and the ever-present “Hawksian Woman” who is always the equal of the men, largely because she is a lot like the men. In the Hawks movies I have chosen for this list, the women have gone from Rosalind Russell to Lauren Bacall to Angie Dickinson, the male leads from Cary Grant to Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne. One reason I rank Rio Bravo above the others is the way Hawks plays with the image of John Wayne. Grant and Bogart are not that different in His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep than they are in other movies. In a similar way, in Rio Bravo John Wayne plays “John Wayne.” But, while Russell and Bacall influence their co-stars, Dickinson’s effect on Wayne allows for a remarkable opening up of “John Wayne.” Grant and Bogart have a lot of love and admiration for the leading women in their movies, but Wayne in Rio Bravo is constantly unsettled by Dickinson, flustered, fumbling for words, never knowing quite what to do with her.
The relationship amongst the community surrounding Wayne also subverts any notion we might have that Wayne is the solitary man of action who needs no help. John T. Chance keeps saying he doesn’t need help (by which he means amateur help … he welcomes the help of professionals). But Chance only accomplishes his goals because his friends help him. The drunk, the cripple, the shady lady, the hotel owner, and the gunslinger (a professional, but as personified by the still-teenaged Ricky Nelson, an anomaly), all of them rise to the occasion. And Wayne welcomes their assistance.
As the community works together, Rio Bravo becomes a generous movie. Bonded by humor and common goals, the characters accept each other with all of their flaws, and we in the audience are welcomed into their company.
No one had a bad word to say about Rio Bravo in the extensive comments, but the real topic of discussion was “what will his final three choices be?” Funny thing is, when I was formatting this post for the blog, I realized I no longer remembered what my #3 was.