In 1952, Fred Zinnemann made one of the great Westerns: High Noon, a multi-Oscared Cold War parable widely praised for its real-time suspense and psychological heft. But one man just didn’t buy it: Howard Hawks. Dismayed to see Gary Cooper’s beleaguered lawman scrabble around for support “like a wet chicken”, the director responded with Rio Bravo: a paean to professionalism in which the heroes don’t plead for the townspeople’s help. Hell, they turn it down. “Well-meaning amateurs,” drawls sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne), “most of ’em worried about their wives and kids...”
Bravo, though, is much more than the anti-High Noon. Warm, witty and endlessly welcoming, not only is it the filmmaker’s finest Oater – better even than the sparkling Red River – it’s arguably the quintessential Hawks flick. The mood may be relaxed (there’s time for a sing-song before the dynamite-chucking climax) but it gives a rigorous work-out to the themes closest to Howard’s heart: pride, responsibility, male friendship, group bonding. Deeply felt but carried off with the lightest of touches, it’s almost a classic by stealth: a film that entertains so easily, it’s only later you start to mull over the graft that must’ve gone into it. Clearly Hawks himself was so satisfied with the end result he spent the last years of his career virtually remaking it: first as El Dorado (1966) then Rio Lobo (1970), both starring Wayne.
Here, Duke’s the seasoned small-town lawman holding off comrades of the killer (Claude Akins) he’s thrown in the local lock-up. But you don’t need to worry too much about the big picture. It’s the side-plots and performances that matter most, an emphasis Hawks was turned on to by serial-drama TV. After taking a walk on the dark side in The Searchers (his last cowboy pic before Bravo), Wayne’s as laid-back as can be, an effortless mix of unflappable moral authority and fond paternalism (check out his gooey gaze when the crooning kicks off).
But the (lost) soul of the film belongs to Chance’s alcoholic deputy Dude (Dean Martin at his un-sauve best). The scene where the stubbled soak finally finds the courage to pour his whiskey back in the bottle (“Didn’t spill a drop”) could be the movie’s heart-stirring highlight. Schmaltz? Not a drop. Elsewhere, it’s ribs that are troubled rather than tear-ducts, whether it’s sidekick Stumpy’s (Walter Brennan) gummy rantings or the love-hate sparring betwixt Chance and sassy showgirl Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a gab-gifted Hawksian woman par excellence who leaves our hero literally speechless at one point.