John Wayne is an American film icon, but to me, he’s also an annual reminder of the most wonderful time of the year. While I cannot think of anything “wonderful” about 2020, when I think of Christmas, I think of the Duke. Not because of his classic film, 3 Godfathers, director John Ford’s Western version of the Three Wise Men, but because of frequent broadcasts of Rio Bravo on the A&E cable network in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Much to my dad’s dismay, I grew up disliking Westerns intensely (save for the occasional Twilight Zone Western-set episode like “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”): whether it was black and white or color, Westerns bored me. Why would I want to watch movies about old white guys on horseback spitting tobacco everywhere and firing guns that made no bullet holes in their victims’ clothes? Westerns were embedded in my family’s DNA: my grandpa was a voracious reader of Zane Grey Western novels (he would even reread the books–Grey wrote nearly one hundred novels, leaving enough completed manuscripts after his death in 1939 to keep his publisher happy with new annual releases until 1963!), and my dad evoked memories of going to the cinema on Saturdays to see Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey Westerns–a surefire way to induce a coma. John Wayne, the Patron Saint of Hollywood Cowboys, seemed like a dubious Western star to me—he looked like a paunchy, worn-out human saddlebag with a lumbering gait whose best years were long past him. Back in the early ‘00s, when I worshipped at the altar of Indie Cinema, the Western was as hoary a cinematic experience as I could imagine. I lost count the number of John Wayne films set in a bygone Texas frontier era–I didn’t want to remember the Alamo! I was also scarred by reading a now-apocryphal story of John Wayne having 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter in his colon, discovered in a posthumous autopsy in 1979—at the time, I believed it, as it seemed like a logical explanation for his stiff gait. The snippets of John Wayne films I’d seen on TV indicated that whether or not he was indeed full of shit, he didn’t seem like much of an actor; how wrong I was! During a quiet Christmas shared with my dad in 2001, I learned to embrace Wayne as a Hollywood icon and appreciate the Western genre because of Rio Bravo, so much so that it’s become an annual viewing tradition for me during the holidays.
After a saloon fight goes awry, Rio Bravo sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), younger brother of cattle baron Nathan Burdette (John Russell), for murder. However, this displeases the elder Burdette, and he uses his wealth to entice gunslingers and mercenaries to break his brother out of jail. Chance is helped by Dude (Dean Martin), his former deputy who’s now become the town drunk, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a crippled rancher-turned-deputy. After his old friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) is killed by Burdette’s men for soliciting help, Chance decides to bunk in the jailhouse and wait for the federal marshal. Wheeler’s hired hand, Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a card hustler, also provide help. A showdown on the outskirts of town will decide the fate of Chance and his motley crew!
Christmas 2001 was a sombre affair, as my immediate family had left Calgary for various parts of Western Canada, leaving my dad and I to fend for ourselves. We eschewed a traditional Christmas Day turkey dinner in favor of surf and turf: grilled ribeye steaks, Digby scallops, baked potatoes, asparagus, Caesar salad, and several bottles of Beaujolais, my dad’s favorite wine. The World Juniors, the annual international hockey tournament for under-20 players, didn’t start until Boxing Day (Dec. 26 for you non-Commonwealth folks), so we had to find something to do. In my family—and other families, I suspect—watching TV together constituted as quality time, so TV was a good way to spend a few lazy hours in the afternoon before Christmas dinner. My dad always controlled the remote control–his house, his rules–so I would suffer through romantic comedies he had seen numerous times (especially anything with Sandra Bollocks—sorry, I mean Bullock). Other than James Bond and Indiana Jones, my dad and I don’t share the same movie tastes, so I’ve suffered through While You Were Sleeping more times than I can recall (speaking of inducing a coma…). On this particular Christmas afternoon, he selected Rio Bravo, one of the handful of movies A&E aired before they switched their business model to shows about hoarding drug addicts and their abandoned storage units. As the opening credits began, I thought it might be as good a time to catch a yuletide nap, but something happened: I watched John Wayne and Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson and I didn’t fall asleep! What was happening? This was a Western. Maybe it was the isolation I felt being away from most of my family, but I immersed myself in John T. Chance’s plight and Dude’s fight with the bottle—I was riveted. Including commercials, A&E’s broadcast lasted three hours, but it never felt long to me. Was this what an epiphany felt like?
While Rio Bravo is a beloved Western film to critics and cinephiles, it’s not a visual spectacle like other John Wayne films such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956), both directed by frequent collaborator John Ford, or Red River (1948), the first pairing of Wayne with Rio Bravo director, Howard Hawks. The film lacks magnificent vistas and sun-drenched deserts, but its richness is found in its characters: Each is fully formed and has a strong motivation for staying in the town of Rio Bravo to help Chance against Burdette’s men. Wayne is suitably stolid as Chance, the lone voice to stand up to the corruption of Burdette’s wealth, a man who cannot be bought with gold currency like the mercenaries in town; a man was killed in cold blood and Chance insists in law and order to solve the conflict instead of ignoring it.
While chaos intensifies with each new arrival of mercenaries to town, the sheriff displays an envious, unflappable sense of calm: He has a job to do and he will carry it out, no matter the cost, even if it’s his life. Wayne’s Chance is aptly named, a metaphor for law and order given an opportunity to prevail over anarchy in the American frontier. John T. Chance is demonstrative of American individualism, displaying dignity and even humor when faced with overwhelming adversity, accepting help when offered, but not reliant on it to perform his job. The role of sheriff is symbolic of right and wrong and to Chance, despite the overwhelming odds against him, it’s the only thing preventing corrupt, immoral people from co-opting justice for selfish gains.
John Wayne’s performance is relaxed, but he’s not performing on cruise control—he’s fully aware he’s part of a bigger character-oriented narrative set in the Old West and he’s relishing the opportunity. His burgeoning romance with Dickenson’s Feathers is very amusing—who could ever conceive that the Duke would be flustered easily by flirting! Wayne and Dickenson play very well off each other, despite the considerable age difference (Hollywood was already well-established in placating middle-aged men’s desires by 1959—what’s a 25-year age gap between actors?). The playful banter between Feathers and Chance is delightful because it stems from Chance’s insistence that she gets on the next stagecoach to avoid danger, but he doesn’t realize how much he needs her help—not only will she save his life (with help from Colorado), but she gives him another reason to stay alive besides his duty as sheriff. She knows he cares about her, but she wants him to admit it, something the proud Chance is reluctant to do until the film’s denouement. In a role smartly written by screenwriter Leigh Brackett (one of the few women in Hollywood writing screenplays, let alone Westerns), Angie Dickinson elevates what too often was underwritten in many Westerns. It’s refreshing to see a woman who isn’t a doting wife or lascivious saloon girl. Feathers can hold her own in a card game and in love.
Dean Martin’s Dude goes through a tumultuous journey in Rio Bravo, but any apprehension of having a member of the Rat Pack starring as the town drunk should be dismissed. There is not an ounce of self-parody in Martin’s performance—it’s arguably his finest work on film. Martin brings pathos to the well-worn Western trope of the fallen hero. At one time, Dude was Chance’s dependable right-hand man, but now he’s such the butt of jokes that the Mexicans in town call him Borrachón, which means “drunk.” Dude’s alcoholism is so severe that he’s willing to dig around in a full spittoon for a silver dollar to buy booze, the victim of a cruel prank played by the soon-to-be-homicidal bully, Joe Burdette. Throughout the film, Martin portrays a man struggling to overcome his disease, stumbling occasionally, but determined to prove his worth as a deputy again to Chance and to himself.
Martin and Wayne work well together, creating a believable shared history between their characters—Chance overlooks Dude’s volatile, alcohol-deprived actions, including getting knocked out with a heavy piece of firewood, as he knows his old deputy’s struggles (he overlooks the transgression until he finds the right moment to knock Dude down in a “teachable” moment—nobody said rugged individualism was a painless lesson!). Martin’s Dude is so haggard and grimy that a well-deserved bath is interrupted by mercenaries’ treachery—the path to sobriety and gratification of cleanliness won’t happen until the bad guys are dispatched fully. The understated-yet-gripping performance in Rio Bravo should be at the top of Martin’s showbiz accomplishments, right behind his collaboration with Jerry Lewis and far ahead of his televised celebrity roasts.
Rio Bravo isn’t a conventional Western because it’s really a series of character pieces strung together, imbued with humor, with only a few action sequences interspersed throughout to relieve tension. While Dude struggles with sobriety and Chance wonders what he’s gotten himself into with Feathers, there’s a clear standout in the film: Walter Brennan’s Stumpy. Sadly, he isn’t universally loved in my household (we have a “No Stumpy” rule, so grating is his timbre to my beloved partner), but Brennan’s Stumpy is the highlight in every scene he appears, an elderly deputy with an obvious limp from an unknown injury (he references that he lost his land to Burdette—perhaps the limp is the result of that conflict?) and a sharp tongue. His role as deputy indicates how little there is in the way of help, as characters like Pat Wheeler and Nathan Burdette express incredulity repeatedly at his law-enforcement role. Stumpy might seem like a joke to some of the townspeople, but he saves Chance’s life in the jailhouse (he confidently dispatches a couple of Burdette’s goons from pulling off a jailbreak) and at the end, during the shootout, he’s just as capable as Chance, Dude, and Colorado when he shows up unannounced to help–his distinctive cackle notifies Chance that help has indeed arrived! His idea to throw dynamite towards the Burdette warehouse for the other men to shoot and explode is clever; in addition to being the jailhouse cook, Stumpy is a crafty tactician. What makes Brennan’s comic performance all the more memorable is the fact that cinephiles forget just how malevolent he was as the Clanton patriarch in John Ford’s masterful My Darling Clementine (a film many a Gen Xer has seen in snippets, courtesy of a memorable M*A*S*H “movie night” episode).
What makes Rio Bravo so endearing is its lived-in feel. Other Westerns seem like they’re populated by the same stock characters seen in countless Westerns (the fearful town doctor, the creepy undertaker, shifty saloon bartender, the weaselly mayor, the impotent town sheriff, etc.), but in Howard Hawks’ film, other than the requisite bartender, the town is full of decent people dealing with the long shadow of Nathan Burdette’s corrupt influence. Local merchants, such as hotel owners Carlos and Consuela Robante (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez—Clifton Collins Jr.’s grandfather!—and Estelita Rodriguez), are trying to run a business without interference from card hustlers and Burdette. The hotel owners’ squabbling, particularly as they insert themselves into Chance’s love life, is amusing and a needed respite from the central narrative. The couple continues to assist Chance by sourcing provisions, relating important messages, and offering the occasional piece of love advice. Carlos even shows up at the climactic warehouse showdown to assist the outnumbered lawmen, rifle and bullets in hand (it’s also refreshing to see Hispanic entrepreneurs who are not walking ethnic stereotypes as seen in countless other films at the time). The couple is kind enough to provide Feathers, a known card hustler, a job at the hotel, as she has renounced her cheating ways, in order for her to stay in town. Though the town is only a collection of interior sets in a Hollywood studio, I pictured myself living in such a place.
I haven’t mentioned the music! My favorite scene in Rio Bravo features the scrappy lawmen, bunkered in the jailhouse with food, water, beer, and tobacco (the essentials), enjoying a rare diversion of singing. Thankfully, neither Howard Hawks nor John Wayne thought it was a good idea for the Duke to serenade the film audience, but in this scene, he sits to the side, quietly enjoying crooner Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson’s “My Rifle, My Pony and Me,” a romantic ballad about a cowboy resting after an arduous cattle roundup. The song is a pure delight, playing to both singers’ strengths and forging a genuine bonding moment for the men (it’s also a song that stays in my head for weeks at a time). One does not have ‘50s teen idol Ricky Nelson in a film merely just to act, so as soon as one song is over, he increases the tempo considerably with “Cindy,” a bouncy folk song that encourages Dude and Stumpy to join in (again, Wayne’s Chance stays blissfully silent, enjoying the jailhouse serenade). This momentary feeling of joy, the simple pleasure of singing that unites the men, reinforces their bond during a stressful, perilous time. Hawks is no fool for including it amidst the mayhem. It’s a glorious scene that won me over completely—it takes a simple scene of fellowship among men, united in a cause, to break down my resistance to the Western genre and I’m glad it succeeded.
Rio Bravo won me over that Christmas day, nearly 20 years ago, because its characters were fully realized, believable, and most importantly, likeable. The three-hour broadcast time felt far from laborious and with the absence of my own family, I adopted the good people of Rio Bravo, Texas. The film showed me that a Western need not be filled with excessive gunfights and horseback chases, but could be filled with heart, humor, and characterization–I can’t imagine what kind of cinephile I’d be today if I hadn’t allowed John Wayne’s soothing drawl into my heart (likely an insufferable twat with too many genre biases). Inspired by Rio Bravo, I explored other classical Westerns, including Hawks’ inferior-but-not-unenjoyable 1966 remake, El Dorado (teaming up again with John Wayne), as well as the Italian Spaghetti Western sub-genre (I also fell in love with Segio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the sun-baked grime and sweat of its cowboys).
Rio Bravo taught me never to dismiss a film genre out of prejudice; all storytelling genres have merit. With COVID restrictions forcing many of us to stay home alone this holiday season, I look forward to revisiting John T. Chance and his cohorts, more so than ever before. It might not seem like an obvious Christmas movie, but for me, Rio Bravo will always be an annual holiday viewing event. Without that past Christmas epiphany, I’d have missed out on the rich legacy of the American Western.