Rio Bravo (1959) Review – Hats, Horses and Hollow-points

Nobody makes Westerns anymore. What’s all that about? And when I say ‘Westerns’, I mean proper Westerns with deserts and cowboys and wide-brimmed hats and horses and outlaws and Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs and gunfights and tumble-weeds and stuff. There was a time in the early 20th Century when all that came out were Westerns. Do you know why? Because they were easy and cheap to make which sounds like a bad thing but if you got it right, you could have a good little money spinner.

Largely the case would be that the whole film would take place in one location with a rotation of actors and set pieces so all you’d need is a patch of desert and an imaginative set designer. A saloon, a sheriffs office, a few general stores and you could shoot all the exteriors in a week or two then it’s into the studio for all the interior shots. Easy Peasy.

Oh sure, I’m not going to deny that Westerns have been the influence for a lot of movies and TV shows in recent years. For example, a TV show that I was fond of was ‘Justified (2010 – 2015)’ starring Timothy Olyphant who plays a US Marshall sent back to his home town of Kentucky and has a fondness for his wide-brimmed hat and shooting people in the style of a quick-draw. Even ‘Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)’ had something of a Western influence what with it being about a man protecting his family from outlaws and it’s set in the desert and he has a somewhat comedic sidekick in Aaron Paul before the show went all dark. And of course, ‘Deadwood (2004 – 2006)’ which is possibly the most faithful a series as we’re going to get. Even though ‘Deadwood’ has much of the same characters and is set in the same town, the show is a million ways away in tone from the 1953 Musical-Western, ‘Calamity Jane’ starring Doris Day.

And the movies… countless. Countless movies have been associated to this genre. ‘No Country for Old Men (2007)’ starring Josh Brolin is a good place to start. Then you’ve got ‘Once Upon a Time In Mexico (2003)’ starring Antonio Banderas. And the parodies! I’m not going to sit here and name them all but my favourite (if you’re interested) is ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)’ written by and starring Seth Macfarlane.

And the video games! What with me being a connoisseur there are a few titles that hold true to this comparison. ‘Red Dead Redemption’ developed by Rockstar of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ fame is a top contender along with ‘Call of Juarez’ developed by Techland who would later go on to make ‘Dying Light’. But my favourite is a little game called ‘Fallout: New Vegas’ developed by Bethesda and could be called an expansion pack of ‘Fallout 3’ which is also amazing. ‘Fallout: New Vegas’ also holds a wonderful connection to this weeks movie. I won’t tell you what it is just yet but I’ll give you a little clue. ‘Fallout: New Vegas’ has decent music. Moving on.

There’s a reason why I love the Westerns of the early 20th Century and that’s because it’s all about the characters. In those days, there were no fancy pants special effects, no CGI, no nothing and so all the film had to work with was the script and the characters. There are quite a few hidden gems in this genre but the best one that I’ve found is a little film called ‘Rio Bravo’; directed by Howard Hawks, starring a veteran of Westerns, John Wayne, teenage heartthrob and baby faced, Ricky Nelson and the legend that is, Mr Dean Martin.

Now I know what you’re going to say. ‘Why are you watching a movie from nearly 60 years ago? Shouldn’t you be watching the newest and most glamours movie from Hollywood that cost several hundred million dollars to make and is completely soulless and stars Kristen Stewart or Taylor Lautner or someone else frightful’. I say, no. I have respect for this style of film-making and for this era in general. Of course today we know it all but back then, directors weren’t afraid to try something new to give the audiences something to look at which is something that’s been lost in recent years. With the grand advancement of film-making technology in the last 2-3 decades, film-makers have gotten lazy and it shows. Having exhausted a great deal of what my generation has to offer, there’s nowhere to go but back. Back in time that is. So here were go. Rio Bravo. The Plot.

Set in the town of Rio Bravo, the film centre’s around it’s Sheriff, John T. Chance (John Wayne), his deputy and struggling alcoholic, Dude (Dean Martin) and their elderly and crippled jail-house guard who’s given the affectionate nickname of ‘Stumpy’ (Walter Brennan). After Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) beats up Dude in the saloon and kills a bystander who tries to stop him, he’s arrested by Chance and incarcerated. Joe’s brother, Nathan Burdette (John Russell) is rich and powerful and fully intends to come to his brother’s rescue by any means necessary. Chance’s friend, Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) arrives in town with a wagon full of supplies. Along with Wheeler is his young companion and sharpshooter, Colorado (Ricky Nelson) who more than proves himself as a valuable asset to the local law enforcement. In the mean time, a beautiful and mysterious stranger, nicknamed ‘Feathers’ (Angie Dickinson) arrives in town and takes a shine to Chance.

There’s your basic outline so lets have a better look at the characters. Beginning with the headliner, John T. Chance.

John Wayne is a legend when it comes to American Cinema in the 20th Century but I’m going to be honest, I hadn’t seen him in anything before ‘Rio Bravo’ and I was impressed with his performance. There’s a reason why he was so good. According to IMDB, John Wayne has 177 credits to his name, 100 of which are classed as Westerns beginning with an uncredited appearance in ‘The Great K & A Train Robbery’ in 1926. He got his first starring Western role 4 years later in ‘The Big Trail’. I think it’s fair to say that he’d mastered his craft by 1959.

Aside from defending the town from Burdette’s crew of hit-men, Chance’s main plot line is the burgeoning romance between himself and Feathers. After a shaky meeting in which Chance accuses her of cheating at a card game, her interests in him grow ever stronger even though he constantly makes out that he’s not interested. From their meeting onwards, Chance is consistently trying to get Feathers onto the next coach to a far away place and it’s strongly suggested that he’s doing it because he’s uncomfortable in her presence but later on it becomes clear that he wants her to leave because of the inevitable showdown with Burdette and he doesn’t want her to get hurt. That’s never said out loud but that’s the kind of writing that I like. It’s all left up to the audience’s interpretation rather than fired at your head because the writer doesn’t think there are any smart people watching.

John Wayne also correctly portrayed Chance as the strong leader that he should be. Not only that but I also got a ‘fatherly’ type feeling from his presence. Stumpy, even though he’s older than Chance, still takes orders from him without question and Chance’s opinion obviously matters to him. When the showdown with Burdette and his men becomes imminent, Chance wants Stumpy to stay in the Jail as his disability puts him at a disadvantage in battle. Stumpy’s upset by Chance’s remarks but still shows up on the battlefield anyway to prove to Chance that he can be of some use in defending his town other than guarding prisoners. Chance is willing to take the young Colorado under his wing and also offers his help to Dude by keeping him on as Deputy so he can keep him from drinking himself to death.

Colorado is something of a mysterious character as we don’t know that much about him. We know that he’s smart and wise beyond his years and he’s good with a gun so you have to ask yourself, how did Colorado get to be the way that he is? I have no idea but that’s the fun of this kind of character. He’s only a baby boy himself but he still shows a caring and nurturing side. When he and Feathers assist Chance when he’s held up at gunpoint, Feathers has a bit of a turn but Colorado is right there with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and the other free to offer some comfort. I think that’s so cute.

I’ve saved the best for last.

Dean Martin has had a rich and varied career on the stage and on film but most of you reading this will know him as being a part of ‘The Rat Pack’ standing alongside Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. On his own, he had several hits over his career, the most popular being; ‘That’s Amore’, ‘Volare’ and ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ among others but my favourite Dean Martin song is ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’ that was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for the movie ‘Oceans 11 (1960)’ that starred ‘The Rat Pack’ and was wonderful. Aside from being in ‘Oceans 11’, ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’ has featured prominently in several movies, TV shows and video games such as ‘Fallout: New Vegas’. Ta Da!

The majority of Dean Martin’s film career was comedy based as he had a flourishing partnership with comedian, Jerry Lewis. I do enjoy it when talented comedic actors find a serious role and run with it and that’s precisely what Dean Martin did with his role as Dude. To me, he got the best role and that’s a totally unbiased opinion. For a start, his character is the only character that goes through an arc.

When we first see Dude, he’s a stumbling, broke drunk who’s a shadow of his former self and reduced to scrounging for drinks at the saloon. His lowest moment comes in the opening scene when Joe Burdette flings a dollar into the spittoon and just as he’s about to stick his hand in there so he can buy a drink, Chance stops him. As Joe is being arrested, Chance realises that he’s outnumbered but Dude is right behind him and even though he’s just been beaten up, he can still shoot a gun out of a guy’s hand at 20 paces. Oh yes, Colorado isn’t the only sharpshooter in town.

Having been a hard drinker for two years and finally hit rock bottom, Dude gets the opportunity to change his life by staying sober but it won’t be easy. With no rehab or counsellors, it’s cold turkey all the way. The primary symptom of the ‘drying out’ process in the film is the shakes which is showcased by Dude as he tries to do his everyday activities such as rolling a cigarette. As a former smoker myself, I just wanted to say, ‘Take a deep breath and start again. It’s all in the thumbs’. Even though I haven’t smoked a cigarette in over a year, I’m still amazing at rolling.

The film has interesting ways of showing the degradation of Dude without the use of flashbacks as Dude slowly begins to rebuild himself. For the first hour or so, Dude has been using Stumpy’s gun but Chance decides it’s time to give him back his old guns which Dude sold when he hit the bottle. Chance bought them back because he knew that one day, Dude wouldn’t be in such a bad place. Dude gets his guns, gets a change of clothes, a shave and looks like a new man. In fact, he looks so good that Stumpy takes a shot at him, thinking it’s one of Burdette’s men. It’s then that Dude realises what he’s done to himself over the last few years. It’s downhill from there.

The next day, Dude is blind-sided by a gang of Burdette’s men and hog-tied in a barn whilst the others go for Chance. With Colorado’s help, Chance defeats the men and rescues Dude. Naturally, Dude is humiliated and ashamed of himself for being captured so easily but we know that it wasn’t his fault. 4 against 1 isn’t exactly fair unless you’re built like an aircraft carrier. Anyway, Dude is completely demoralised and tells Chance that he’s finished and he’s no good anymore as his hands are shaking so much that he can’t use his guns. Chance accepts his resignation but tells that Dude that if he goes out and gets drunk then he won’t be there to help him. The next scene is one of the best in terms of character development and growth.

As Colorado is sworn in as another Deputy, Dude sits and stares at a bottle of booze. He pores himself a shot and by now, my bottom has formed an imprint on the edge of my seat. As he’s about to down the shot and put himself back to square one, he hears the music of a Mariachi band playing in the background. The song that they play is what’s known as ‘The Cutthroat Song’ and was requested by Burdette earlier on as a kind of warning. As Dude listens, he realises that he’s needed. Given that he started drinking because the woman that he loved left him, he doesn’t need to bury himself in liquor because there are people who care about him and they’re in danger. Dude pours the shot back into the bottle without spilling a drop. The shaking has stopped and he’s back to his old self again. Chance returns his Deputy’s badge. Happy Days.

The thought did cross my mind that even though withdrawal from prolonged exposure to any kind of narcotic or alcohol is very much real, the fact that Dude felt worse after being captured and his hands only stopped shaking upon him hearing the music of the Mariachi band and coming to his senses, then his symptoms much have been at least partly psychosomatic. Nevertheless, it just goes to show what I always say, ‘It takes a brave man to admit that he has a problem but it takes a strong man to do something about it’. I’ve never said that. Sounded good though, didn’t it?

I do find it a little bit ironic that Burdette requested the music to psych out his opponents but it was that very song that caused Dude to make the right choice and better himself. A bit more irony? Dean Martin as a performer was portrayed as a lush and a womaniser on stage and yet in one of his best roles, his character hit the bottle after having his heart broken.

While were talking about Dean Martin, lets have a chat about music. Regular readers (or those who read my ‘Family Guy’ review) will know that I have an almost unnatural love of Swing music. I love my Rock ‘N’ Roll and I’m not averse to some Pop every now and again but I always come back to Swing. It’s the ‘go to’ genre for me because it has a special way of making me feel good and what annoys me is that not enough of my generation know about and can appreciate this kind of music. It takes skill and years of dedication to perfect this kind of style whereas any ‘random’ with a laptop and a serious hatred of their own eardrums can re-create what’s in the charts today. It takes talent to get a big band together and create something wonderful. Deep breath. Rant over.

Anyway, since there are three singers in the main cast (Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan), it only seems appropriate that we the audience should hear them. Towards the end, the boys are gathered in the jail-house and with nothing else to do, they have a little sing-song. Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson give a glorious rendition ‘My Rifle, Pony and Me’ with Ricky Nelson on guitar and they are accompanied by Walter Brennan on the Harmonica. They then sing something a little bit more jolly, ‘Get Along Home, Cindy’ and Walter Brennan joins in. Dean Martin also sings ‘Rio Bravo’ over the end credits.

The unfortunate thing about reviewing an older film is that there’s not a lot of information about the finer details of the production. Not like there is today. For example, I couldn’t find any record of the budget for this movie but I do know that it made $5.2 Million at the box office but hold on. That figure is based on 1959 rates. If the film were to have been released this year and the figures adjusted for inflation, ‘Rio Bravo’ would have taken almost $45 Million. For a film that wouldn’t have cost that much to make, that’s a good number.

There was a special reason for me writing this review other than the fact that ‘Rio Bravo’ is a great film and should be applauded as such. Dean Martin was born on June, 7th 1917. At time of writing, today marks his 101st Birthday. Happy Birthday, Dean Martin.

I’ll finish with this. Despite the height of his fame being at around the time when not even my parents were born, I think it’s a testament to Dean Martin’s talent that his musical and cinematic legacy has gone on for as long as it has. There’s always a danger that sheer brilliance will be lost in time but Dean Martin and indeed the rest of ‘The Rat Pack’ have proved that true class never goes out of style. At least not while I’ve still got my home-made ‘Rat Pack’ embroidered Pompoms.

2 responses to “Rio Bravo (1959) Review – Hats, Horses and Hollow-points

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