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Ricky Nelson

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.]

John Wayne as Chance, Angie Dickinson as Feathers

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.

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