In a top-10 poll conducted by Sight and Sound in 2002, the English critic Robin Wood named Rio Bravo (1959) the best film ever made. Rankings, of course, are silly and arbitrary, and subject to mere politics and the shifting whims of critics and other moviegoers. But they can move us to view films we have missed or reevaluate those we have already seen. In the case of Rio Bravo, I won’t rank it by number but will happily include it among the top 10 or 15 most enjoyable movies I know. I would toss another film by Howard Hawks, The Big Sleep, into the pot, along with the first two Godfather pictures, Chinatown, The Wild Bunch, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Yojimbo, The Searchers, the original Manchurian Candidate, It’s a Gift (W.C. Fields) and County Hospital (a Laurel and Hardy short). An odd bunch, I know, but the principle criterion for inclusion is artistic inexhaustibility. All are movies I have seen many times and look forward to seeing again.
Rio Bravo did not disappoint. The cast is perfect: John Wayne, Dean Martin (in the best role of his career), Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan and Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez. In his monograph on the movie in the Film Classics series from the British Film Institute, Wood says a lot of dubious things about Rio Bravo, mostly assertions about homosexual and Cold War subtexts, but his love for the movie and what he calls its “joyousness” is genuine and admirable.
In this viewing I was struck by a scene near the middle of the film to which Wood also devotes considerable attention. Dude, played by Martin, is a former gunslinger now ravaged by the bottle. He has become the town drunk, and his humiliation by a pack of halfwits at the start of the film is the engine that drives the plot. Dude has been deputized to help guard a killer, Joe Burdette (played by Claude Akins), in the town jail. Burdette’s brother (John Russell) and his henchmen attempt to ride into town, and Dude orders them to turn in their guns. When one of them keeps riding, Dude shoots the reins out of his hands. When Burdette points out that he’s outnumbered, Dude coolly responds that he will be the first man he shoots. This exchange follows:
Burdette: “You’re enjoying yourself, aren’t you?”
Dude: “Mr. Burdette, get going, I have no more to talk to you about.”
Burdette: “You should enjoy it, Dude. Every man should have a little taste of power before he’s through.”
Only a man with a gun in his hand, who feels confident he has tipped the balance of power, would say such a thing. Burdette is patronizing the town drunk, an extension of the humiliation his brother started the night before, and at the same time threatening him. Dude, fighting with himself to stay sober (Martin was soon to patent his boozy persona, but by then it was only shtick), his sense of self-respect sorely frayed, resorts to the gun as a last resort. Its presence, his reputation for using it, and his gift for diplomatic language, are enough. For a story that couldn’t take place without firearms, Rio Bravo boasts a remarkably short list of victims. The only sympathetic character to die is Pat Wheeler (played by Ward Bond), and his role is small. The characters in Rio Bravo talk (and sing) more than they shoot. Hawks, the director, claimed Rio Bravo was his answer to High Noon (1952), in which the sheriff (played by Gary Cooper) faces the bad guys alone. The people he serves betray him. In Rio Bravo, the sheriff (Wayne) is aided by a motley group of locals and outsiders. Even Wayne’s character, tough and commanding as ever, first tries reason, then the gun. The mix of characters and the alliances they forge – romance, camaraderie -- are the heart of the film.
What often came to mind as I watched Rio Bravo this time was the poetry W.H. Auden wrote on the eve and at the start of World War II, especially “New Year Letter,” which he dated Jan. 1, 1940. Here’s a pertinent passage from Part One:
“Though language may be useless, for
No words men write can stop the war
Or measure up to the relief
Of its immeasurable grief,
Yet truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense…”
“But where to serve and when and how?
O none escape these questions now:
The future that confronts us has
No likeness to that age when, as
Rome’s hugger-mugger unity
Was slowly knocked to pieces by
The uncoordinated blows
Of artless and barbaric foes…”