Equally Hawksian is the theme of friendship among men in hazardous occupations. There is usually the strong guy-weaker pal relationship, on which Hawks plays complicated variations: in Only Angels Have Wings, it’s Cary Grant and Thomas Mitchell (older, losing his sight); in To Have and Have Not, it’s Bogart and Walter Brennan (older, a drunk); in Rio Bravo, it’s Wayne and both Dean Martin (younger, but a drunk) and Brennan (older, a cripple).
In fact, Rio Bravo contains some of Hawks’ most sensitive and complex work in this interplay between the male characters. Hawks told me: “At one point Wayne said to me, ‘Hey, Martin gets all the fireworks, doesn’t he’? I said, ‘That’s right.’ ‘What do I do?’ I said, ‘What would happen to you if your best friend had been a drunk and he was trying to come back—wouldn’t you watch him?’ He said, ‘O.K., I know what to do.’” Hawks went on to explain: “The crux of Rio Bravo is not Wayne; it is Dean Martin’s story—everything happens because of the drunk. It happened at the beginning of the story, and it happened all the way through it. Of course, it becomes a great part for Wayne because he’s going through all these things because of friendship. He’s wondering how good this man is, whether he’s ruined or is going to come out all right. You watch a man develop and end up well, and the friend is glad for it.”
Wayne used to say that he was noted for action, but that his work was “more about reaction,” and Rio Bravo contains some of his most telling and subtle reactions, and not only visual ones, though he was superb in silent close-ups. But besides being sheriff, his character is the moral conscience of the picture. And he tells both Brennan and Martin quite forthrightly when he doesn’t approve of their behavior, or anyone else. Typically for Hawks, Wayne’s character is only wrong when it comes to understanding the woman. Which leads to some of Wayne’s most human, and funniest, reactions.
After an unparalleled streak of 11 straight successes—from 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings to 1951’s The Thing—Hawks made three films that didn’t work, and he decided to take some time off. For three years, he reflected on “the way we used to make pictures,” and caught up with a new medium he’d been too busy to examine: television. He noticed that on TV series what brought audiences back week after week was not the plots but the characters, not the stories so much as the people. So he decided to make a picture in which the plot was simply a token and the characters were essential. Thereby echoing Thomas Hardy’s dictum: “Character is plot.”
The result was Rio Bravo—the shortest two-hour-and-21-minute movie ever made—with the shortest plot line: sheriff must keep a rich man’s brother in jail for murder until the U.S. Marshal can arrive. Yet to describe the numerous characters’ layered and evolving relationships would require considerable time. Just see the movie: The people are constantly surprising, and Hawks frequently subverts our thinking about them, revealing them in shifting lights that deepen and enrich their humanity.
The way the film is directed and nuanced reminds me of Orson Welles’ answer to my request that he compare John Ford and Howard Hawks. He said, “Hawks is great prose, but Ford is poetry.” However, Hawks’ “great prose” fairs better with modern audiences, and it is astonishing how many of his films don’t date at all and remain enormously entertaining, even after repeated viewings. There are a number of Hawks pictures that, should I come upon them on TV, I find virtually impossible to switch off. Rio Bravo is certainly one of them, but it’s lengthy, so I keep telling myself I’ll just watch the next scene, right through to the end.
The opening sequence of the film is an extraordinary example of concise and evocative picturemaking, setting up the central plot of the movie as well as the conflicts in the central relationship (Wayne-Martin) without even one line of dialogue. It is a triumph of silent storytelling, harking back to Hawks’ childhood, apprenticeship, training and his first 11 years in pictures, four of them as a director. I once asked if he wasn’t in this initial sequence “going back to the essence of what a movie is,” and he nodded, “Yes, getting back.” A flawless use of camera placement, size of image and expressive juxtaposition to convey story and character—relying more on behavior than words—it is classic moviemaking, with a vocabulary and grammar that has not been improved upon. Indeed, concision and visual elaboration of people in movies seem to have atrophied over the years.
It is also an excellent example of the shorthand power of the original star system. A sheriff’s badge on his vest tells us all we need to know about John Wayne’s position in the story; the actor’s established persona fills in the rest. Just as the pop myth you got with Dean Martin, his being a drunk (which he actually wasn’t)—you didn’t need further convincing after a shot of him dressed like a bum and eyeing a drink. Part of the glory of the movie are the rich variations Hawks plays on the stars’ given personas. In fact, when I first saw the movie (just before its premiere in March 1959) my first written reaction—this was before I knew anything about Hawks—was for an Ivy College magazine in which I essentially said the film was like an enthralling, comfortable evening with “old friends.”