Rio Bravo Image

Rio Bravo

By Bradley Gibson | April 27, 2023

Director Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Western Rio Bravo is a genre-defining gem taken from a simple tale of frontier justice. Small-town sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) at a saloon for his casual murder of a man who tries to stop him from beating a local drunk known as Dude (Dean Martin). Chance manages to put Joe away with Dude’s help, but he faces an enormous challenge keeping him there until the U.S. Marshal arrives to set charges on him. It turns out Joe is the brother of the powerful Nathan Burdette, a wealthy rancher, and owner of much of the town. As such, Nathan’s numerous ranch hands and assorted hooligans make up a formidable armed force, all determined to free Joe from Chance’s custody.

Chance is well-known and respected far and wide as an honest, law-abiding man focused on his duty to keep order. As a result, many people offer to help him defend the jail. Still, when an old friend is gunned down for even offering to help, Chance rejects all other offers of assistance, with the exception of Dude (who agrees to dry out), and an aging, disabled deputy named Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Eventually, he also agrees to accept the help of a young, overly confident gunslinger he calls Colorado (Ricky Nelson).

“…assorted hooligans make up a formidable armed force, all determined to free Joe from Chance’s custody.”

The script is so bare it’s hardly there: Keep the bad guy locked up until reinforcements arrive. The bad guy’s friends and family will try every device, from the direct use of deadly force to hostage-taking to free him. That’s it. What Rio Bravo lacks in narrative complexity is more than made up for in the care with which the characters are portrayed and the high stakes they face when trying to keep order in the small town. As such, the performances are everything. Wayne is beyond reproach as Chance. Brennan plays the cantankerous Stumpy for comic relief as only he can with his instantly recognizable voice and mannerisms.

Angie Dickinson was 26 when she played the reformed gambler called Feathers as the love interest to a reluctant Chance. Despite her role being a standard limiting one-dimensional female character, she infuses Feathers with charm and intensity beyond what those characters were typically allowed. There’s even an uncommon spark of wit and humanity in the stereotypically racist roles of the Mexican innkeeper Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and his wife Consuela (Estalita Rodriguez). There are more delightful surprises with Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. Martin turns in an amazing performance, showing genuinely powerful acting chops. Nelson is also compelling, and there is a light-hearted moment when they sing an unforgettable number called “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” It is pure magic.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Directed: Howard Hawks

Written: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, B.H. McCampbell

Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, etc.

Movie score: 9/10

Rio Bravo Image

"…genre-defining gem taken from a simple tale of frontier justice."

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