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It has been said that director Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo (1959) as a reaction to two popular westerns which angered him - High Noon (1952) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). His comment on the former was, "I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him." Hawks also considered 3:10 to Yuma, which had outlaw Glenn Ford playing psychological games with lawman Van Heflin, "a lot of nonsense." So Rio Bravo was the director's take on heroism and the true measure of a man. The simple storyline has sheriff John T. Chance arresting a murderer and keeping him locked up until his trial. It soon becomes evident that the jailed prisoner has plenty of armed friends and they plan an attack on the jail. Luckily, sheriff Chance, who is outnumbered forty to one, gets some unexpected backup from the least likely characters - an alcoholic drifter, a crippled, elderly man, a naive young gunslinger, a dance-hall girl, and a hotel clerk.
John Wayne was at the peak of his career in 1958 and Howard Hawks could not think of a better actor to play John T. Chance, a lawman who embodied duty, decency, and integrity. Walter Brennan, who had worked for Hawks before on several films including Red River (1948), was also a natural for the role of Stumpy, Chance's comical sidekick. But the real surprises of Rio Bravo are two crooners turned actors: Dean Martin, who was attempting a solo film career after the breakup of his partnership with Jerry Lewis, and Ricky Nelson, the teenage idol who had just scored a number one hit with "Poor Little Fool" the previous year.
Cast in the role of Dude, an alcoholic battling inner demons, Martin turned to his friend Marlon Brando for advice about playing the role. According to Hawks in a later interview with Joseph McBride, Martin showed up for the first day of shooting "dressed like a musical comedy cowboy. I said, 'Dean, look, you know a little about drinking. You've seen a lot of drunks. I want a drunk. I want a guy in an old dirty sweatshirt and an old hat.' He went over, and he came back with the outfit he wore in the picture. He must have been successful because Jack Warner said to me, 'We hired Dean Martin. When's he going to be in this picture?' I said, 'He's the funny-looking guy in the old hat.' 'Holy smoke, is that Dean Martin?'"
The only thing Martin really had a problem with was a scene in which he had to cry. The idea of pretending to cry totally unnerved him but he eventually got it right. He also got along great with the cast and crew, even if his joke telling sometimes held up production or he was hung over for most of the shoot. Martin and Wayne also played mischievous older brothers to Ricky Nelson on the set, presenting him with a 300-pound sack of steer manure for his eighteenth birthday and then tossing him into the center of it.
Rio Bravo was filmed in Old Tucson, the same Arizona movie set where Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) was filmed. Cinematographer Russell Harlan modeled the look of the film on the frontier paintings of Charles M. Russell. Filming outdoors was often a chore due to the 120-degree heat and an invasion of grasshoppers that fried on the hot lights and littered the sets.
Rio Bravo was the first in an informal trilogy written by Leigh Brackett and directed by Hawks that included El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), both starring John Wayne. John Carpenter would later remake Rio Bravo as an urban thriller entitled Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). While Hawks' original continues to survive as one of the great Westerns of the fifties, an English critic said it best when he wrote: "If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo."
Director/ Producer: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: John Wayne (Sheriff John T. Chance), Dean Martin (Dude the Drunk), Ricky Nelson (Colorado Ryan), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Walter Brennan (Stumpy).
C-142m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford