Annoyed that the acclaimed and popular HIGH NOON portrayed a sheriff so afraid of his adversaries that he spends most of the movie asking the townsfolk for help, director Howard Hawks decided to make a filmed response, namely RIO BRAVO. A lengthy, leisurely paced film, RIO BRAVO is set in a small Texas border town, Rio Bravo, that is under the control of evil cattle baron Russell and his dim-witted brother, Akins. When Akins commits a murder, the sheriff (Wayne), throws him in jail to await the arrival of a US Marshall. Russell lays seige to the jailhouse, and Wayne is forced to rely on the town drunk (Martin), a cranky old cripple (Brennan), and an untested young gunslinger (Nelson) for help.
With its simple plotline, familiar characters, songs, and frequent humor, RIO BRAVO is outstanding entertainment. However, the film has been overrated by some zealous critics, who either ignore its weak points or defend them as praiseworthy oddities. As enjoyable as the film is, it has flaws that prevent it from reaching the classic status of RED RIVER–particularly the casting. Pop star Ricky Nelson was cast on the basis of his great popularity with teenagers rather than because of any acting talent, a decision that ensured additional box office from young girls who wouldn’t normally think of going to see a western. Despite his moneymaking potential, however, Nelson simply couldn’t act, and Hawks must have known it.
The singer is given the fewest lines possible for a third-billed actor, and he is physically restricted to the background or alongside the other leads. He is never given center stage alone–this is no Montgomery Clift (Wayne’s costar in RED RIVER). Also somewhat weak is Angie Dickinson. While she is given all the right Hawksian dialog and her character is the quintessential Hawks woman, tough enough to stand up to any man who comes her way, she doesn’t possess the spunkiness of a Jean Arthur or the sultriness of a Lauren Bacall. Wayne, however, turns in a fine performance (though not as good his work in RED RIVER), and Walter Brennan is superb as the grouchy, nasty old man who is undyingly loyal to his friends. The real revelation, however, is Dean Martin, in a part he obviously understood well. His role as the drunken deputy who redeems himself is crucial to the film, and the singer-actor handles his part with skill. Hawks enjoyed working with Martin, whom he found eager and willing to take direction. RIO BRAVO was very successful commercially, and Hawks later used two variations of the story (with the same character types, similar situations, sometimes even the same sets) in his last two westerns, EL DORADO and RIO LOBO. All cowritten by Leigh Brackett, the films form a sort of informal trilogy, although they become successively weaker. Though Hawks was inspired to make RIO BRAVO as a rebuttal to HIGH NOON, his daughter, Barbara Hawks McCampbell, an aspiring writer, came up with the basic plotline that later became the film’s climax–outlaws holed up in a house, while the heroes explode sticks of dynamite by shooting them like clay targets–and was paid and given screen credit for the story.
Overall, RIO BRAVO is an excellent film featuring strong, proud, but very human characters who fight against their various handicaps and pull together to do a job and do it right. The people in RIO BRAVO have the same kind of deep affection and understanding for one another as do close family members who are not afraid to speak truthfully for fear of hurting each other’s feelings, and it is that aspect of the film that is so appealing. Director John Carpenter’s second feature, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, is an updated remake of RIO BRAVO.