The idea for Rio Bravo (1959) began with Howard Hawks hating High Noon (1952). In 1962, Hawks explained this to me, referring to High Noon as that picture “in which Gary Cooper ran around trying to get help and no one would give him any. And that’s rather a silly thing for a man to do, especially since at the end of the picture he is able to do the job by himself. So I said, ‘We’ll do just the opposite, and take a real professional viewpoint.…”
The key word there is “professional,” because Cooper was playing a sheriff in a small town, to which a killer is about to return to murder him. Yet protecting the community was the sheriff’s job, for which he is being paid, and Hawks (who had himself done three movies with Cooper) deeply believed that his character’s behavior was, simply and thoroughly, unprofessional. So in Rio Bravo, when Sheriff John Wayne, in a similar situation, is offered help, he refuses it, saying in effect, “If they’re really good, I’ll take them. If not, I’ll just have to take care of them.” Hawks went on: “We did everything that way—the exact opposite of what annoyed me in High Noon—and it worked: people liked it.”
People loved it. Rio Bravo didn’t get any Academy Award nominations (High Noon got seven), but it was a far more popular movie with audiences than High Noon, for which Cooper won his second Best Actor Oscar (his first had been in 1941 for Hawks’ Sergeant York). Critically, Rio Bravo was received as a likable new John Wayne western, nothing much else. Some reviewers complained that it was crass of Hawks to have Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (whose first grown-up part this was, as a gunslinger) sing in the movie. I mentioned this once to Hawks and he said, guilelessly, “Well, they were both known as singers, I thought the audience might like to hear them sing.” He didn’t mention that he’d had similar singing sequences in a number of his films, similarly used as a way of bonding the characters. That Rio Bravo was actually the brilliant culmination of a 40-year career by one of America’s finest film artists was something only the French New Wave and a couple of similarly minded Englishmen and Americans (like Andrew Sarris) pointed out.
As Jean-Luc Godard wrote: “The great filmmakers always tie themselves down by complying with the rules of the game.… Take, for example, the films of Howard Hawks, and in particular Rio Bravo. That is a work of extraordinary psychological insight and aesthetic perception, but Hawks has made his film so that the insight can pass unnoticed without disturbing the audience that has come to see a Western like all others. Hawks is the greater because he has succeeded in fitting all he holds most dear into a well-worn subject.”
What Hawks held most dear was professionalism; all his adventure films deal with this subject—professionals in dangerous situations: The Dawn Patrol (war), Only Angels Have Wings (primitive flying), To Have and Have Not (foreign intrigue), The Big Sleep (private detective), Red River (cattle drive), etc. On the other hand, Hawks’ comedies put the pros into ridiculous situations: Bringing up Baby (paleontologist), His Girl Friday (newspaper reporters), Ball of Fire (encyclopedists), I Was a Male War Bride (Army), Monkey Business (chemists).
Amazingly, although he worked in virtually every genre (even musicals, with professional gold diggers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Hawks has every bit as consistently personal a body of work as Hitchcock, who basically worked in only one genre. It’s no coincidence that when the French revolutionized cinema with their 1950’s politique des auteurs (mistranslated here as “the auteur theory”), they became known as “the Hitchcocko-Hawksians,” because their primary examples of serious artists working deep within the Hollywood system were these two essentially antipodean picturemakers: the voyeur and the adventurer.
Hawks himself was very much like the men in his movies—as a youngster, he built racing cars and drove them, and was a flier when flying was new. He had a dark sense of humor, and was a loner. “The Gray Fox of Hollywood,” he was called, and he talked and moved with the casual, laconic air of a Hemingway character, as unpretentious as he was sophisticated. He was a lethal ladies’ man, and his female characters are by now proverbial as “Hawksian women,” the no-nonsense lady, who can take it and dish it out with any guy—lean, sexy, aggressive, funny (with infinite variations): Louise Brooks (A Girl in Every Port), Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century), Frances Farmer (Come and Get It), Rita Hayworth (Only Angels Have Wings), Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday), Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep), Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo). Several of these women he introduced to the screen.
Talking about the most archetypal example—Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not—Hawks once told me that when he had shown this picture to Marlene Dietrich, her response to him afterward was, “You son of a bitch—that’s me, isn’t it?” And he answered, Yes, and that in a few years he would do the same thing with another woman. As he did a decade and a half later, with Angie Dickinson. But his goal of creating an American Dietrich—which took root right after Josef von Sternberg and Dietrich first collaborated on The Blue Angel and Morocco (both 1930)—didn’t reach perfection until his first movie with Bacall. He succeeded just as well, in a softer tone, with Angie.
She even has a couple of the same gambits with Wayne in Rio Bravo as Bacall did with Bogart in To Have and Have Not. The second kiss with Bogie, and Bacall says, “It’s even better when you help”; the second kiss with Wayne, and Angie says, “It’s better when two people do it.” Exasperation at the man’s reluctance to commit: Bacall says, “I’m hard to get, Steve. All you have to do is ask”; Angie says, “I’m hard to get, John T. You’re gonna have to say you want me.” Hawks had no compunction about stealing from himself. He gives to Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo a nose-rubbing habit that was used by both Wayne and Montgomery Clift (as his surrogate son) in Red River. If it worked once, he would say blithely, why not do it again? He didn’t mind stealing from others either, if it would fit into his view of the world.
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.”
Soon after that, I found out that Hawks had directed two of my favorite films when I was a 10-year-old (also favorites of my parents, who had first taken me to see them): Red River and I Was a Male War Bride. It turned out he had also directed another family favorite: Sergeant York, the only film for which he got a directing Oscar nomination. All this coincided with my becoming friendly with two American French-influenced “auteurists”—Andrew Sarris and Eugene Archer (then the fourth-string film critic for The New York Times)—who were full of admiration for, and erudition on, Howard Hawks.
Because I wanted so badly to see every picture Hawks had directed, I devised a plan to get Paramount to pay for a Hawks retrospective (the first in America) at the Museum of Modern Art, in conjunction with the 1962 release of Hawks’ latest film, Hatari! (also with John Wayne). “The Cinema of Howard Hawks” became a monograph I wrote—featuring my first interview with Hawks—as well as the name of the Museum’s complete, six-month retrospective. By then, Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep had joined the others as favorites of mine. They still are.
Recently, when Warners sent me this deluxe edition of Rio Bravo (they interviewed me for the DVD featurette, which also has Hawks’ voice from our interviews together), I figured to just look at the opening and see how the print was (it’s exceptional). Naturally, I watched the whole thing. And this experience was the most completely engrossing and emotional of my life with this almost 50-year-old work. By now, of course, the film had reverberations particular to me: I had known Hawks pretty well and loved him, and Wayne a bit, had met Martin and Dickinson. But, most important, I had grown up with the movie, and it had only deepened with age—its own and mine. What I think moved me most, apart from the humanity Hawks explores with such generosity, is the simplicity of gesture, the easy invisibility of the craft behind the art of golden age picturemaking that the film so beautifully embodies.