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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #116: Rio Bravo

With his great Western Rio Bravo (1959) Howard Hawks set the template for what could be described as the siege movie genre. It’s a simple enough premise: you have the good guys holed up in a location with a limited amount of weapons and ammunition while outside you have the bad guys trying to get in with a lot more henchmen, guns, and bullets. Hawks himself would make two more variations on this story structure throughout his career, and decades later John Carpenter would use it as an inspiration for Assault on Precinct 13 and Ghosts of Mars. Of course it had to be all-American cowboy John Wayne to be the star of Rio Bravo and start this tradition of holding up against the bad guy no matter what.

In yet another rare instance of homework being fun, I discovered this classic while taking a course on Hollywood Cinema at the University of British Columbia in the summer of 2009, and wrote an essay on it and The Searchers, another John Wayne classic. I think I got a good grade, but if I get to watch two movies for work I am going to be a happy guy either way. Also the great thing about catching up on classics is that you get to see their influence on modern day entertainment, which in Rio Bravo’s case includes the occasional Quentin Tarantino film (of course) and even an episode of Angel.

Hawk’s film operates with what are now considered tropes of the Western genre. John Wayne plays the heroic Sheriff John T. Chance, while Dean Martin plays Dude, his drunken deputy. In the town of Rio Bravo, Texas, Chance has arrested Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for the shooting of a bystander during a saloon brawl involving a drunk Dude. Unfortunately Joe has a wealthy brother, rancher Nathan Burdette (John Russell), who does not take kindly to seeing his brother behind bars even if he is guilty of murder. In fact, Nathan is so offended by the fact a member of his family has been imprisoned he is willing to have his men lay siege to the prison in order to have him released.

Despite the odds being clearly against him, Sheriff Chance does not back away from his duty. The film was seen as a response to High Noon, a Western in which another lawman was also outgunned, but threw away his Sheriff star away when he was abandoned by the townspeople. The overtly heroic Chance actually refuses help when it is offered by people he believes could not handle the violence. However as the odds are less and less in his favour allies come to his aid, such as a young gunslinger Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson). The filmmakers also give Chance to find romance with a recently arrived poker player named nicknamed Feathers (Angie Dickinson).

This movie is filled with straight-A American heroism. The Sheriff is not afraid to die for law and order, the drunken deputy gets a chance at redemption, and the bad guys wear black hats just in case there was any doubt in the audience’s mind regarding how un-heroic they are. One way in which the story rises above the Western tropes is with the Feathers character, who thankfully has more to do than look pretty in a dress while the men-folk go about protecting the town. In fact, she even gets a scene in which she is standing guard with a rifle while Chance is getting some much needed sleep. She’s not exactly The Bride in Kill Bill, but for 1959 that’s not bad.

In this age of remakes and other forms of cinematic regurgitation it is somewhat surprising that no one has yet tried to do another version of Rio Bravo. We are after all weeks away from a remake of The Magnificent Seven. The answer might be because Hawks’ film has already been remade one way or another by other filmmakers over the decades with variations in locations, characters, and the number of bullets fired. The movie may have aged, but the formula remains as effective as ever.


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