Is Rio Bravo the best movie ever made, or merely the best Western? I’m kidding, of course—but kidding on the square. While Rio Bravo may not be the best of all possible Westerns, it makes the top-five list of everybody I know who truly loves the genre. And though highbrow critics didn’t pay much attention to the film when it came out in 1959, they’ve long since changed their tune. David Thomson, the smartest film critic in America, went so far as to include Rio Bravo in his new book, “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, a fat volume of miniature essays about the most significant movies of the twentieth century, in which he unhesitatingly calls it “great.”
If by “great” you mean King Lear, or even Citizen Kane, then I must humbly beg to differ. But I think you could make a strong case for calling Rio Bravo the most entertaining movie ever to come out of Hollywood. It is one of those supremely rare works of art that has the power to take you out of yourself and set you down again in a parallel universe of pleasure, one in which nothing matters but the experience of watching a group of gifted men and women doing something as well as it can possibly be done. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that pleasure is the subject matter of Rio Bravo—which is doubtless why it took so long for so many people to appreciate the film at its full value.
Today, 50 years removed from its 1959 release, the film rests ever more solidly on its own merits, long disassociated from whatever biases or expectations prevailed during its initial reception. And being such an eminently entertaining film, Rio Bravo, unlike more critically favored Fifties fare that has become dated by the very elements that made it pleasing to those critics, can stand and deliver to any and all ages today.
Critics as a group are an earnest breed, just as America is an earnest country, one in which uncomplicated pleasure tends to be viewed with narrow-eyed suspicion. Our favorite works of art have always been moral fortune cookies with a message tucked inside: CRIME DOES NOT PAY. EARLY TO BED AND EARLY TO RISE. A MAN’S GOTTA DO WHAT A MAN’S GOTTA DO.
Needless to say, a lot of Westerns, including most of the best ones, are like that, and in some of them the message is very stern indeed. You can’t get much more morally tough-minded than John Ford’s The Searchers or Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome or Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, all of which rank at the top of my personal list of great Western movies. But, then, so does Rio Bravo, a film that appears at first glance to be about DOING THE RIGHT THING but turns out on closer inspection to be about nothing much at all. The insert-gun-A-in-holster-B plot is set in motion in the first ten minutes of the film, the first four of which contain no dialogue whatsoever. After that we get two and a half hours of leisurely backchat, punctuated by gunfire and capped by a series of explosions, at the end of which John Wayne and Angie Dickinson hop into the sack. Curtain. Crack open this fortune cookie and you’ll find a slip of paper that says FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL HOWARD HAWKS.
Hawks, the director of Rio Bravo, specialized in making pictures about pleasure, and he had a good time making them, too. So did the actors who worked with him. When he was shooting To Have and Have Not, Jack Warner, the head of the studio, is supposed to have sent him an inter-office memo that said, “Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.” Surely Wayne, Dickinson, Dean Martin, and Walter Brennan had at least as much of a ball making Rio Bravo. Remember the deliciously sly look on the Duke’s face when he tells Dickinson that “I do my own shaving”? Or the scene where he kisses Brennan on the top of his bald head? Memo to Jack Warner: Fun was being had.
All this suggests—correctly—that Rio Bravo is best understood as a comedy, albeit one in which a fair number of people, including one of the good guys, get killed. But it was Hawks who pointed out that “the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the point of view,” and his best films, among which Rio Bravo should definitely be numbered, are mostly comic melodramas in which matters of plot take a back seat to human interaction. They are also wholly masculine films that rarely make room for more than one major female character, a Lauren Bacall type who strolls into a bar, catches the hero’s eye, and says something that reveals her to be both sexy and (for want of a better word) game. Hawks’ women are all men’s women who travel light and know how to take care of themselves. Feathers, the character played by Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, is the quintessence of the type: she’s a girly girl for sure, but if you should ever find yourself in a shootout, you won’t have to tell her more than once where to throw the flower pot.
Which brings us to John Wayne, who needs no more introduction to the readers of American Cowboy than he did to the folks who lined up a half-century ago to see Rio Bravo. Then as now he was the ultimate Western hero, and he had already made most of his iconic screen appearances by the time he signed up to play John T. Chance, the sheriff who slaps Claude Akins in jail knowing full well that his rich brother won’t take too kindly to seeing his neck stretched. American moviegoers had seen a lot of the Duke by then, and they knew a lot about him. They knew that he could be tough, vengeful, even obsessive to the point of madness. They also knew that he was catnip to women—and that he could be very, very funny. But they’d never before seen him in an adult comedy, by which I mean one that takes the existence of sex for granted and proceeds from the assumption that it’s something unmarried grownups have not infrequently been known to do with one another.
Howard Hawks had already made brilliant use of Wayne in Red River, the first film to present him as unambiguously middle-aged and to show how good an actor he could be when challenged by a script that required him to go beyond mere heroics. I’d bet that it was the scene in which a cold-eyed Wayne warns Montgomery Clift that “every time you turn around, expect to see me, ’cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there” that inspired John Ford to make The Searchers. But in Rio Bravo Hawks stretched him in a completely different direction by pairing him with Dickinson, and the results were equally brilliant in a completely different way. Who knew that Wayne could play off her, or any woman, the way that Bogie played off Bacall?
As for the rest of Rio Bravo, it’s a string of pearls, an anthology of perfect lines delivered perfectly, most of them by Wayne. You want that gun? Pick it up. I wish you would…I’d hate to have to live on the difference…You’re not helping me any…Sorry don’t get it done, Dude…That’s what I got. It is a sexy comedy, a good old-fashioned shoot-’em-up and a meditation on masculine friendship, all rolled into one gloriously unhurried package. The New York Times, obtuse as always, dismissed it as “well-made but awfully familiar fare…. It is hardly likely that anyone will sleep through Rio Bravo, but chances are that a wide-awake viewer will not be particularly startled by its random fireworks.” Fifty years later, the highbrows know better—but some of us knew all along.
Terry Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com. He recently finished writing a biography of Louis Armstrong that will be published in the fall of 2009 and the libretto for The Letter, an opera by Paul Moravec that will be premiered by the Santa Fe Opera in July.
You want that gun? Pick it up.
I wish you would.
— John T. Chance (John Wayne)
No, sheriff. No, I’m not going to do that. You see... that’s what I’d do if I were the kind of girl that you think I am.
— Feathers (Angie Dickinson)
Sorry don’t get it done, Dude. That’s the second time you hit me. Don’t ever do it again.
— John T. Chance (John Wayne)
Feathers: In case you make up your mind, I left my door open. Get a good night’s sleep.
John T. Chance: You’re not
helping me any.