Talking and Doing in “Rio Bravo”
[Written for a November 14, 1972 showing of the film in a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series on Howard Hawks. Reprinted in an all-Westerns issue of the film journal The Velvet Light Trap.]
I can remember my reaction to Rio Bravo upon its initial release in 1959. I liked it, I guess, but I was rather distressed by several factors: everything happened in this Southwestern town, John Wayne spent entirely too much time coming out on the wrong end of conversations with Angie Dickinson, and everybody talked all the time. Somewhere along the line I had been given to understand that Westerns ought to be full of chases and display a great deal of scenery, that love interest was usually imposed obligatorily on action scenarios, and that any movie in which the actors gabbed all the time was not a movie but a photographed play. Besides, these people all talked so oddly; and because they sounded odd, I decided they were technically inept performers. And oh yes, Ricky Nelson — Dean Martin didn’t bother me, but it was simply axiomatic that anyone associated with so many insipid televideo memories as Nelson could only pull a movie down, as for instance in obliging this Howard Hawks fellow to throw in a song interlude just to get his money’s worth and to please “the fans.” (Who were “the fans” who imposed all these strictures anyway? — no one I knew, but they were always Platonically ideal to have lurking in the background as an excuse for one’s peeves.)
Actually I wasn’t guilty of quite all the foregoing stupidities, but I harbored enough of them to make me (or my teenage alter ego) bear the additional symbolic burden of those other exclusionist theories I’ve run across subsequently. I’m for Rio Bravo today, to put it mildly, and if I had to select just one film to demonstrate what Howard Hawks is all about, it would vie at the top of the list with Only Angels Have Wings. Both pictures embody the essential Hawksian rhythms of danger and security; clearly exemplify the strong bonds of respect and reliance that sustain the small society of professionals contained within the larger and scarcely seen society of undistinguished, uncommitted workaday types; suggest why love is as dangerous and as necessary to personal wholeness as flying or gunfighting; file lucid and affectionate briefs for good, personal, ritualistic humor and the healthier forms of craziness; and relate language, speech, and reason to action more definitively than any other films in the canon. If Only Angels Have Wings is the foremost masterwork of the director’s early period, Rio Bravo is that of the later, even more genial years.
With the noble exceptions of The Dawn Patrol, Hawks’s first talkie, and the epic Red River, all of the films we have seen have seemed wonderfully relaxed, as if they must have been a pleasure to make. It becomes difficult, in this context, to suggest that Rio Bravo and El Dorado are more so. But they are, and at the same time they are among Hawks’s most efficient films. This apparent contradiction lies at the heart of some people’s difficulty in accepting that Hawks is a serious artist. They have no problem with a Red River because it has physical size and scope and comes on in an epic mode which Rio Bravo eschews. Some puritanical conditioning tells us that we are not allowed to admire anything in which effort remains so inconspicuous. But the greatness of Hawks—as with the greatness of his three most archetypal stars, Wayne, Grant, and Bogart—inheres largely in the fact that his excellence remains so unostentatious, his artistry concealed in the simple, dazzling accomplished fact of his work. Pick at any thread of Rio Bravo, literally any line, look, stance, and you will find it interlaced with all the others. And these redound with multiple meanings (re)discoverable on repeated viewings. Meanwhile, Hawks goes on speaking of himself as a professional man who hopes we are entertained by his movies and who never gets over his mild surprise that some people will watch them more than once.
Rio Bravo begins, not in silence, but rather in studied wordlessness. Hawks’s visual narration tells us all we need to know but, more than that, his conspicuous avoidance of speech and the selfconsciously condensed precision of his actors’ movements inculcates a strong sense of abstract, awesome event. The movie is beginning but something else is ending: peace, tranquility, nonevent. The easy, unremarked flow of ordinary time is arrested, replaced by another style of action and behavior, as of the film’s delayed first line: “Joe, you’re under arrest.” The next line but one fixes our focus: “Now what are you going to do, Sheriff?” And it’s a brand-new Now.
The opening wordless actions establish the bases of most of the main concerns to be explored in the film: that Dude is in a fallen condition and Chance is not, that Dude craves his friend’s approbation and needs his intercession in order to regain his own manhood (he would have dipped into the spittoon if Chance had not kicked it away), and that such intercession in another’s best interests can be dangerous (Dude retaliates against his friend, not the man who has humiliated him; the unidentified man who tries to stop a beating is matter-of-factly shot). But the situation can also be summed up in words, and very common words, too. The name of the man who must now “do” is John T. Chance (Feathers amplifies this subsequently, “T for Trouble”). What he must do is to mind someone else’s “business”: Dude’s, the dead man’s, the town’s. That is his job, his own “business”—his “living”—to “take chances.”
The film describes an interlocking structure of mutual responsibilities, individual dignities that coexist, respect one another’s singularity while lending support nonetheless. Hawks is very self-aware in this region of responsibility. He has declared that he made the film in reaction to the Kramer–Foreman–Zinnemann High Noon wherein a sheriff runs to his community for help and is denied. Hawks asserted that if the man couldn’t handle the job he was hired to do, he shouldn’t have had it at all, and determined to make his own sheriff refuse proffers of aid. Of course, self-sufficiency is not the Hawksian way and Chance does need help time and again—but he didn’t ask for it. That is, in Carlos’s phrase, “what ‘responsible’ means.”
Definitions abound in Rio Bravo. Action defines and so does speech, which is itself a form of action. Early in the film Nathan Burdette is “not talking, just doing”; later he “talks” through the music that he orders his band to play. Wheeler (who hauls freight in wagons) asks Chance whether the first killing was murder and Chance replies, “No other word for it.” Later Nathan registers Chance’s threat to let his brother “get accidentally shot” if there is an attack on the jail; he points out, “A jury might call that murder,” and Chance shrugs off the distinction: “We’d all be dead by then”—and language is for living by.
Hawks is fond of punning on and in action. In Only Angels Have Wings Geoff is delighted by Bonnie’s instantaneous recollection and utilization of his week-old remark when he finally does burn himself twice in the same place. In this film characters attend to what one another say and build on it: Wheeler says to Colorado, “I told him [Chance] you were the best,” and Colorado replies, “Well, there’s something I’m better at: minding my own business.” Chance respects Colorado’s “good sense” and acknowledges he’d like to have had him on his side; the two things go together, nor is it inconsistent of Chance to point out, once Wheeler is dead, that Colorado had his chance to get into the fight and didn’t. In such a situation, in such a world-view, people ultimately act because they act, because of what they are. After Colorado has saved Chance’s life and explained how Feathers was about to step out into the bad scene until he diverted her—”she threw the flowerpot through the window and I came out instead.” Chance understands and accepts: “That’s your reason for throwing in with me.” Nothing in John Wayne’s delivery italicizes the phrase “throwing in,” but the likeness between the recent event and the accidental choice of words should not go unremarked. Similarly, at the moment of conquering his craving for drink Dude, who has resigned from his job as deputy, gestures with the shotglass he has just emptied back into the bottle and says, “Chance, give me another shot at it and Stumpy can take the bottle away”; the ambiguous “shot” emphasizes the poetic and psychological inextricability of Dude’s means of self-degradation and his avenue toward regeneration. Colorado contributes another example when Chance tells him he doesn’t have to help him meet Burdette in the final confrontation; Colorado insists, “When you decided to make the trade I went along with you. I’m going along now,” and the phrase moves from figurative (we were in agreement, I supported you) to literal (I’m going along in order to support you again).
Colorado’s further explanation is equally suggestive verbally: asked why he must go, he replies, “Let’s say I want a closer look.” That “Let’s say” isn’t really casual from Hawks’s point of view. People frequently preface sentences that way, and Hawks does use unessential phrases like “Well, OK” and “Let’s say” to provide padding when he wants his actors to come in on top of one another’s lines and give a realistic sense of conversation. But here the phrase is used explicitly as a means toward implicit meaning: I’m giving you a reason because I clearly have to say something in answer to your question, but you and I both know that’s what I’m doing, and furthermore that I can handle what’s going to happen out there and that I have made up my own mind. It really is all there, and it’s the difference between Chance’s acceding to Colorado’s desire to go and denying Stumpy’s; for Chance believes (though in fact he turns out to be wrong) that there are sound practical reasons why Stumpy shouldn’t join in the fighting whereas with Colorado he merely felt the need of assuring the young man he wasn’t obligated. These subliminal transactions are part of the process of definition of values, character, behavior.
What Hawks does to language and action here is nothing less than Shakespearean—and I mean that literally, not as a means of borrowing the filmmaker some cultural credit-by-association. Nothing ever sticks out of the dialogue he writes,* yet the simplest words in the world, words we don’t even hear anymore, reverberate with suggestion. By this time no one can be unaware of the importance of “good” in Howard Hawks’ vocabulary. Rio Bravo slices it more ways than any other film: Beer “doesn’t do any good” to satisfy Dude’s need, but on the other hand beer thrown at Joe Burdette isn’t wasted. Pat Wheeler is “a good friend” who “wishes good” for Chance, but “he talks” and it is “no good” to say the wrong things to the wrong people. Wheeler, whose Spanish “ain’t too good,” starts a sentence that leads up to calling Dude a drunk while the man stands nearby; Dude offers to leave so Wheeler can speak freely, and Chance says, “Wasn’t good, Pat.” Wheeler expresses his regret: “I shouldn’t have said it. I didn’t mean anything by it.” But his inflection shows he is still wrong: to him the two sentences are coequal statements of apology, but his Hawksian English is also insufficiently good for him to recognize that he shouldn’t have said it because he didn’t mean anything by it (it would have been unpleasant but not at all unjust for him to have called Dude a drunk if he had meant it); Chance might repeat “Wasn’t good, Pat” for renewed reason.
In fact, the dialogue between Chance and Wheeler in the bar is the “good”-est in all Hawks cinema: Dude “was good, my deputy”—was responsible, able; the woman who got off the stage was “no good”—lacked character (and implies that there can be a good woman who gets off stages—as in fact there is—a good man–woman relationship); Pat “isn’t good enough” to help his friend in his present troubles—Colorado is, but his goodness is demonstrated by his having sense not to intrude. Dude’s hitting the Burdette man on the run “wasn’t bad,” but it also wasn’t “good” since he and Chance had to go into the saloon after the man (recall Geoff in Only Angels Have Wings telling Kid his performance on the eye test was “not bad”). Dude tells Burdette’s foreman not to come any farther by saying, “Harris, you’re pretty good right there”—”good” is “at the limit of safety” in this case. Dude’s idea to deceive the Burdette man that no one is at the jail to help Stumpy is insisted on as “good”—effective—even though it is not good, does not bode well, for Dude himself. Feathers offers one more embellishment when she recounts her history and Chance commiserates “You’ve had a rough time”: “You’re wrong—I’ve had a good time”; “rough” equals “good.”
And a life that was not rough would not interest a Hawks character. Why should it? It doesn’t interest Howard Hawks. He doesn’t make movies about the times when people aren’t having trouble. Action is living. Dutchy’s flyers “must love it,”‘ Bonnie concludes in Angels, and Sparks acknowledges: “You have to have some crazy way of looking at it to go on.” They put their lives on the line because that’s how they know their lives are worth living. And if action is living, and talk is also action, then talk is living, too. Talk is coping: the “Yes they have no bananas” routines (Only Angels), the refusals to give straight answers or ask direct questions except stylishly (with a two-headed coin, for instance), the verbal expertise, the versatility with logic that enables one to sustain syntactical orientation, all operate as means of coming to terms with the essential irrationality of the Hawksian lifestyle. And of course Hawks’s films are not merely about weirdo professionals; as last week’s black-sheep comedy Monkey Business underscores, Hawks’s real concern is with the sheer existential fact of dying. The lethal professions his characters follow are simply superstylized approaches to this universal concern. If you didn’t get it this week, you will the next, to paraphrase Geoff about Joe Souther; meanwhile, “have fun,” like Matthew Garth and Cherry Valance with their six-shooters in Red River, and keep up a running patter like Stumpy if that will prevent you from flipping out.
Rio Bravo begins in studied wordlessness and proceeds through some of the most offhandedly convoluted dialogue Hawks has given us. People talk at cross-purposes, get interrupted, misquoted, misunderstood. As Chance demonstrates his worth on one field of action, on another he scrambles in self-defense. Love was dangerous to Geoff Carter, more dangerous than flying, and the same holds for John T. Chance: the first time he talks to Feathers in the bar, he faces the door and carefully lays his gun down so it is pointing that way; the second time he stands with his back to the door, watching her, his rifle held casually. But these risks of person and of sexual poise are necessary. Learning Feathers spent the night guarding his door, Chance gets mad at Carlos and says, “Tell her … the fool—I’ll tell her myself.” “You’re going to tell her she’s a fool?” “I didn’t say I was!” “I didn’t say I was,” not “I didn’t say I would”—Chance’s talk goes all to pieces. But being this sort of fool is condoned by Hawks as much as the foolish heroism Feathers drunkenly alludes to later. It is as necessary to Chance as the anarchy Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) introduces into the life of David Huxley (Cary Grant) in Bringing Up Baby, wherein Huxley cries at one point, “I’m going to be all right—I’m just losing my mind, that’s all”—and in order to be “all right” (or “good,” as Barnaby Fulton says on rollerskates in Monkey Business) he must lose his mind, or abandon all the stuffy categories of thinking in which his existence has become as desiccated as the fossils he reconstructs. Chance is repeatedly unmanned by Feathers from the moment she deliberately misunderstands the red tights Carlos is modeling on him, and at the same time he is brought closer and closer to—uh—throwing in with Feathers. Their testy love is consummated in a rare wordless scene in midfilm, when Chance comes down into the hotel lobby at night, finds Feathers drowsing in a chair while stubbornly guarding him, and—with Hawks’s characteristically droll explicitness—removes the shotgun from her lap and carries her upstairs.
There is another interlude in the film that transcends language. It is the scene in the jail when, the community of defenders now unified and sure of one another’s worth, the boys decide to sing a little song. An earlier program note has remarked Hawks’ casting of two singers, the one an established performer, the other an up-and-coming challenger, in the directly parallel roles of two gunfighters who both court John T. Chance’s approval and admiration. Rivalry has ended now. Dude (Dean Martin) and Colorado (Ricky Nelson) support each other’s performances and even allow the non-competent Stumpy to join in because it’s one of those songs and one of those times when a good voice (make that a “good” voice) isn’t required, just enthusiasm and fellow-feeling. Chance, their “Papa,” stands apart but not excluded; he watches, sees that it is good, enjoys. This ostensibly gratuitous scene, this shameless capitalization on the offscreen identities of the performers, is one of the most beautiful in all Hawks and also operates very specifically within the structure of this definitive masterpiece.
Another piece of music, “The Cutthroat Song” from the Alamo that is supposed to shatter the deputies’ composure, says something else to Dude on the moment of cracking: “Until I heard that music I forgot how I got into this. If they keep on playing it I’ll never forget again.” The angling and cutting on Dude and Chance at that moment recapitulate their first interaction when the morally composed John T. looked down at the fallen Dude in a rare deviation from Hawks’ normal eye-level shooting. Dude is thus reborn. And the talky, confused progress of the crisis in Rio Bravo is resolved in a joyously apocalyptic dynamiting scene punctuated by Stumpy’s mad-grandma cackle. Dude and Colorado walk the streets of the town whistling in tandem, and when this time Chance tells someone she’s under arrest, it means—but of course!—that he loves her. The trouble is over, talk ceases as well, and there is “just the memory of a song / While the rollin’ Rio Bravo rolls along”….
*We can recognize Hawks lines, Hawks scenes, Hawks situations throughout his films regardless of who—Ben Hecht, Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, Dudley Nichols, Borden Chase et al.—is listed as writer(s). In a valuable on-location report of Hawks’s method televised a couple years ago (“Shootout at Rio Lobo”), George Plimpton confirmed our suspicions: every morning Hawks sits down with his yellow legal pad and rewrites the dialogue right on the set.
Warner Brothers, 1959. Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, after a story by B.H. McCampbell. Cinematography (Technicolor): Russell Harlan. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin; lyrics by Paul Francis Webster. Producer: Howard Hawks. (141 minutes)
The Players: John T. Chance: John Wayne; Dude: Dean Martin; Feathers: Angie Dickinson; Stumpy: Walter Brennan; Colorado: Ricky Nelson; Pat Wheeler: Ward Bond; Nathan Burdette: John Russell; Joe Burdette: Claude Akins; Carlos: Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales; Consuela: Estelita Rodriguez; Matt Harris: Bob Steele