In his essay on the film, British film critic Robin Wood asserts, "If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be 'Rio Bravo.'"
I'm not sure I would go that far, but the action-oriented, straight-up good vs. evil, moral- ambguity-be-hanged, Western star vehicle has never been done better than this.
"Rio Bravo" is proof that typecasting doesn't have to be a substitute for good characters. However, as long as you give them something to work with, how could you go wrong with John Wayne as a tough principled lawman, Dean Martin as his drunken deputy, Walter Brennan as a crusty jail guard, Angie Dickenson as a saloon girl with a questionable past, and Ricky Nelson as a boyish gunfighter?
But along with what you see, behind the camera "Rio Bravo" also has the great Howard Hawks directing at the height of his powers, and a witty, outstanding script by old pros Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Hawks and the script take full advantage of the personalities of the performers, but grant the characters a genuine individuality at the same time.
The riveting opening to "Rio Bravo" brilliantly sets up the characters and the situation like a silent movie, without a word of dialogue. We see Martin skulking around a saloon, hoping to bum a drink. An arrogant Akins taunts him by throwing a silver dollar into a spitoon, daring him to humiliate himself. Martin prepares to dig it out, and Wayne, looming over him, kicks the spitoon out of his reach. When Wayne turns away, Martin clobbers him with a chair, then is held while Akins delivers a beating. A bystander who tries to intervene is murdered by Akins, who then coldly staggers on to the next saloon. He is followed there by a bloody Wayne who is ready to take on Akins' whole outfit, but is unexpectedly assisted by a gunslick Martin.
Wayne plays Sherrif John T. Chance, whose town is placed under siege by Akins' brother, Nathan Burdette, a wealthy rancher, and his army of hired guns. What follows is a tense series of confrontations as Burdette and Chance jockey for position.
If that's not enough to keep Chance busy, he must also help his deputy, Dude, (Dean Martin) dry out from a long drinking spell, and deal with the attentions of a lovely and sassy gambler (Angie Dickenson) known as "Feathers."
"Rio Bravo" superbly mixes its elements of action and suspense with romance and comedy in a way many movies attempt, but few achieve. Whether its the suspense of Chance and Dude patrolling the dark city streets, the wit of Feather's poking holes in Chance's tough exterior, or the oft imitated, but never equalled, prisoner exchange at the movie's climax, Hawks allows each scene to play to its fullest-- which accounts for both the length, and the joy of "Rio Bravo."
John T. Chance is the embodiment of what comes to mind at the thought of a John Wayne hero-- and of an American hero, as well. Integrity, loyalty and courage are his watchwords, and he's the toughest hombre on the block. However, he's not a humorless drudge; and he is generous with his compassion-- though it is of the tough love variety. He strives to make everyone around him better-- as long as they want to be. When he judges too quickly, he just as quickly gives credit where it is due.
At one point, a friend played by Ward Bond says to Chance, "A bum-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?" Chance answers laconically, "That's WHAT I got." As tough minded as Chance may be, people are more to him than a balance sheet of outward qualities and faults. Wayne conveys as much in that one sentence as in a dozen mushy Frank Capra speeches about the little guy.
John Wayne and Howard Hawks set out to make"Rio Bravo" as a rebuttal to "High Noon," which they saw as a cynical and liberal anti-Western. It's no coincidence that Sherrif John T. Chance accepts the help of exactly the kind of people that Sherrif Will Kane turned away-- the old man, the kid, the drunk, and the tainted woman.
Whichever approach you prefer, this is the kind of creative passion that fuels great art. In making "Rio Bravo" with this in mind, Hawks and company brought far more to the project than in the times they were merely remaking "Rio Bravo," in the still quite good "El Dorado," (with Robert Mitchum as the drunken deputy) and the pale "Rio Lobo."
As broadly entertaining a movie experience as you are likely to have, "Rio Bravo" is a great addition to anyone's video collection. It is a film your family will enjoy over and over again.