Many reviewers at the time lamented Rio Lobo as a disappointing end to a distinguished career, pointing out the many similarities between this and two earlier Hawks projects with John Wayne, Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), which are considered superior. Hawks dismissed this criticism by noting how often Hemingway reworked the same themes and plot devices in his stories. "Very often [a director] looks at the picture and says, 'I could do that better if I did it again,'" he told Peter Bogdanovich. "I'm not a damn bit interested in whether somebody thinks this is a copy of it, because the copy made more than the original, and I was very pleased with it."
In Rio Lobo, Wayne is a Union captain who teams with two former Confederate soldiers right after the Civil War to track down a stolen shipment of gold. In the process, they end up in a town terrorized by a crooked sheriff. Wayne and his cohorts stop the corrupt official's tyranny and inspire the townspeople to stand up for themselves. The screenplay was written in part by Leigh Brackett, who scripted the two earlier Westerns with which this was compared, as well as three other Hawks films. One of the more notable female writers to span both the old Hollywood studio system and post-studio productions (her last screenplay was for the Star Wars entry The Empire Strikes Back, 1980), Brackett was brought onto this project after Hawks fired writer Burton Wohl. She followed the director's instructions, against her better instincts, to push the story back toward the two earlier Westerns. "Most of what I did on Rio Lobo was to try and patch over the holes," she later said. "I was unhappy that [Hawks] went back to the same old ending of the trade."
That ending, however, underwent some changes when Hawks became disenchanted with his leading lady. Jennifer O'Neill had been a top model with small roles in a couple of previous pictures when he cast her in his Western. He later said the leading role went to her head and, although still a relative unknown, she arrived on set with an entourage and the attitude of a major star. Hawks became so fed up with what he perceived as her uncooperative nature and lack of experience that he cut her out of the ending and gave her lines to a supporting player, Sherry Lansing (the same Sherry Lansing who later became the very successful head of 20th-Century-Fox and later Chairman of Paramount Pictures). Not that he left Lansing alone either. She has noted how he made her lower her voice and tailor her image to be a reflection of an earlier unforgettable Hawks discovery Lauren Bacall. "He attempted to control every aspect of your life, how you dressed, what you did in your spare time. ... In his world, you were required to be the image, not the person."
Hawks had issues with the remainder of his leading cast as well. Jorge Rivero, a Mexican star making only his second American picture, was deemed by the director as too slow and unappealing. Christopher Mitchum was no more than a substitute for his famous father (and Wayne's El Dorado co-star) Robert Mitchum, who Hawks failed to entice into the picture. Even Wayne came under some criticism. The two had worked well and often together since Hawks first cast the actor in Red River, an important milestone in Wayne's career as both an actor and a Western star. But Wayne was now in his 60s and already suffering from the cancer that would kill him nine years later. "Wayne had a hard time getting on and off his horse," Hawks told Bogdanovich about the production. "He can't move like a big cat the way he used to. He has to hold his belly in; he's a different kind of person."
Hawks was assisted on this project by two great Western veterans. William Clothier had been the cinematographer on five of John Ford's films and an Oscar nominee for The Alamo (1960), directed by Wayne. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, whose career encompassed nearly 200 pictures between 1915 and 1975, served as second unit director and uncredited stunt coordinator. This was only his second venture with Hawks (after Rio Bravo), but Canutt had stunt doubled on more than 35 Wayne movies since 1932.
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Leigh Brackett, Burton Wohl
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Editing: John Woodcock
Production Design: Robert Emmet Smith
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: John Wayne (Col. Cord McNally), Jorge Rivero (Capt. Pierre "Frenchy" Cordona), Jennifer O'Neill (Shasta Delaney), Jack Elam (Phillips), Sherry Lansing (Amelita).
by Rob Nixon