Home Movies by Charles Taylor: The great American movie

Howard Hawks' oddball, indoor western, "Rio Bravo," champions the hidden powers of misfits and losers.

By Charles Taylor
May 5, 1998 10:02PM (UTC)
main article image

"We don't have a person to waste." That line, spoken time and again by Bill
Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign, was an irresistible bit of
political rhetoric. As much as anything else Clinton said (or, later, did),
that line promised that the era of Reaganbush -- 12 years predicated on the
conviction that certain people were expendable -- was over. When I think
of those words these days, it isn't President Clinton that exemplifies them,
it's "Rio Bravo."

"When you've got some talent, your job is to use it," the film's director,
Howard Hawks, said in an interview a few weeks before his death in 1977.
Hawks was answering the people who had criticized him for a scene in "Rio
Bravo" in which Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin sing. His defense contains the
ethics of the whole picture. "Rio Bravo" is a demonstration of democracy in
action, a movie about a society that operates on the belief that there
really is no one to waste.


"Rio Bravo" is the most casual, the most relaxed of movies. A comic western
that ambles through its two hours and 21 minutes, it always has
time to pause for a joke, a song or banter among the characters. Hawks and
his actors seem to forget about the plot for long stretches, the way a
group of friends who've gotten together to pitch in on some chore wind up
spending most of the afternoon just hanging out, enjoying one another's
company. "He's so good he doesn't feel he has to prove it," says John
Wayne's sheriff of Nelson's hotshot young gunslinger, and the same is
true for the respect and affection the characters share. Their relaxation
with each other, their ease with themselves, is the result of that respect.
They express it in actions, not words, sometimes as simply as Wayne rolling
a cigarette for his deputy, Martin, when the character's drunken
shakes get the better of him.

Wayne's Chance and Martin's Dude are waiting for the U.S. marshal to take
custody of a man they've locked up after he callously murdered an unarmed
man in a saloon brawl. The killer, Joe Burdett (Claude Akins), is the
brother of Nathan Burdett (John Russell), a rancher rich enough to think the
law doesn't apply to him. Burdett's men have bottled up the town, and
Chance fears they may try to bust Joe out of jail. But the real danger in
"Rio Bravo" doesn't come from the Burdetts. It comes from whatever causes
the people allied against them -- Wayne, Martin, Nelson, Walter Brennan
and Angie Dickinson -- to undervalue one another -- or themselves, from
anything that shortchanges their shared respect, their instinctive sense of

Hawks made "Rio Bravo" because he couldn't stand "High Noon."


"I didn't
think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken
with his head off asking for help," he said. But if Wayne's Sheriff John T.
Chance sets the movie's standard for bravery, composure and the ability to
assess a situation and act accordingly, he also suffers from the flaws that
men of action are prone to: notably, a tendency to judge too quickly, and
by appearances. When Chance knows someone, as he does Dude -- the deputy
who fell into a bottle at the end of a love affair and hasn't yet climbed
out -- or Brennan's Stumpy -- the limping, irascible old jailkeeper
-- he sees past their flaws. With newcomers, like Nelson's Colorado or
Dickinson's Feathers, Chance falls back on snap judgments that turn
out to be wrong.

The first time we see Wayne it's in a low-angle shot, standing over Dude,
who, desperate for liquor money, stoops down to retrieve a coin tossed
tauntingly into a spittoon. Wayne's not only looming over Dude, but over
us, superior to anyone who could stoop so low, to any human weakness. But,
in an act of rough compassion, Chance has also just kicked the spittoon out
of the way, preventing Dude from humiliating himself. "Rio Bravo" is about how
Dude, and the other characters, are able to rise to their feet and look
Chance in the eye.

The twist Hawks employs in his answer to "High Noon" is that the sheriff
who won't ask for help needs it over and over again. That help always comes
from the "flawed" characters, the kind of people that the powerful -- the
Nathan Burdetts and Newt Gingriches of the world -- devalue: an alcoholic,
an old man, a kid, a woman. When Chance's friend Wheeler (Ward Bond)
realizes who's standing with Chance against the Burdetts, he says, "A
bum-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?" and Chance answers,
"That's what I got." There isn't a frame of Frank Capra's
we-the-people speechifying that I wouldn't trade for the way Wayne says
that line, the slight pause before "what" emphasizing the weight he puts on
the word, the word itself conveying that people are more than figures
entered on a debit sheet.


In his superb book "Romantic Comedy," James Harvey said, "All the
scenes of 'Rio Bravo' are scenes of pure behaving." That's the reason a
movie with such a simple plot takes nearly two and a half hours, and why
nothing in it feels expendable. "Rio Bravo" offers none of the conventional
pleasures of westerns: the thrill of watching men and horses ride across
vast landscapes, the feeling that you're breathing in those vistas. Most of
the action, long stretches of it taking place in real time, is confined to
the indoors. It's the spirit of "Rio Bravo" that's so expansive and,
simultaneously, so intimate, and this is why the movie works so well on
video. Hawks gives us the time to live with these characters, who are
defined not by the genre shorthand of their names -- Chance, Dude, Stumpy,
Feathers, Colorado -- but by the personalities of the actors who play them.
Their individuality is paramount; their individuality is the point.

The John Wayne of "Rio Bravo" is the fullest expression of the persona most
of us think of when we think of John Wayne. There's none of the young
charmer of "Stagecoach," none of the psychosis of "Red River" or "The
Searchers," none of the self-parody of "True Grit." John T. Chance embodies
an authority secure enough in its own competence to be devoid of swagger,
willing to acknowledge its shortcomings ("I found some were faster than me
with a short gun," is how he explains to Colorado why he carries a rifle)
and confident in the ability of other people to do better than they believe
themselves capable, a conviction that Chance expresses with hard-edged
compassion. ("Be nice to him and he'll fall apart in small pieces," is how
he justifies his no-nonsense dealings with Dude.) Chance is often wrong in
"Rio Bravo" -- in one instance spotting Feathers as a gambler but falsely
assuming she's a crooked one -- and he's made to recognize it.


Chance tells Feathers that if she changed her manner, her style of dressing
and gave up playing cards, then people wouldn't assume she's a hustler. Her
response expresses the movie's disdain for the false, shallow assumptions
people make about others. "That's what I'd do," she says, "if I were the
kind of girl you think I am." Let people make their assumptions. They have
nothing to do with the person I am. And that's just the sort of stubborn
integrity Chance respects. Wayne made a career of playing a
bigger-than-life heroic figure who inspires people to live up to his
example. In "Rio Bravo," he means much more to us when he becomes
life-sized, humanized by the life-sized people around him.

In "Rio Bravo," there's no one more life-sized than Martin's Dude.
Dude is the suffering side of all the drunk jokes Martin traded on for
years. At his best, Martin was a warm, natural actor, completely at ease in
front of the camera. Dude is a man who has to rediscover that ease with
himself. Seen at first skulking around the shadows of the saloon in hope of
scrounging a drink, Dude is dirty, unshaven, afflicted with the sweats and
the shakes. Seen in daylight, battling a hangover, he's agonized enough to
wish he could crawl out of his own skin. This performance is an example of
one of the infrequently acknowledged uses of star power: how painful it is
to watch someone suffering the agonies that their status as movie star
usually shields them from. It's wrenching to see Dude suddenly double over
in pain or pound his leg with his fist as if pain were preferable to the
deadness in his limbs. What's most wrenching is that we understand his
drunkenness as a symbol for the sudden wrong turns we all take, for the
insurmountable, intolerable gap between what we know we can be and what we

That Dude finally does surmount that distance is part of what critic
Robin Wood meant when he said the whole tradition of Hollywood was behind
"Rio Bravo." It is also part of Hawks' optimism, which expresses itself
here as profound respect for and delight in humanity. He rejects the notion
that, in a democracy, there exists such a thing as people who can be thrown
away. Wood was overstating the case when he wrote, "If I were asked to
choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it
would be 'Rio Bravo.'" But let me offer an overstatement of my own: If I
were asked to choose a film that would justify the idea of America, it
would be "Rio Bravo."

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------