I was recently asked what my favorite western movie of all time was. Favorite western movie? Of all time? Is that even possible? How can I truthfully identify one movie and risk leaving out another favorite? Most people struggle with this question which is, of course, asked for fun. The problem is, the “fun” turns to anxiety when you try and answer the question thoughtfully. Fortunately for me, when I was asked this “fun” question, I didn’t hesitate. Now, I know this answer will do everything from wholeheartedly agreed with to fierce disagreement and even a roll of the eyes. That’s okay. Here we go.
My immediate, no doubt in my mind, matter of fact favorite western movie of all time is… Rio Bravo. Released In April of 1959 and staring the fantastic foursome of John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennen and a baby-faced Ricky Nelson, the story of an outnumbered, out-gunned town sheriff standing tall for what is right hit all the marks for me. It didn’t hurt that one of my all-time favorite directors, Howard Hawks was in charge of a marvelous cast that also included Angie Dickenson, Ward Bond, John Russell and a truly unlikable Claude Akins. Toss in the comedic relief of Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as the town’s hotel owner and it’s no wonder the film received multiple award nominations including Golden Globe nominations for Nelson in the Most Promising Newcomer-Male and Dickinson for Most Promising Newcomer-Female which she won that year.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the film, the premise involves the murder of an unarmed man in a saloon by the younger brother (Akins) of a wealthy and powerful rancher (Russell) who’ll do anything to ensure his “little brother” doesn’t hang for his crime. Despite knowing that arresting the murderer will bring the wrath of hired gunmen down upon him, the sheriff, (Wayne) takes the suspect into custody and locks him up in the town jail that is cared for by his elderly deputy (Brennen). Along for the ride is the town drunk and former deputy (Martin) and young gunslinger (Nelson) in town with a wagon train, and you have the makings of a classic story I wish I had written.
Penned as a short story by B. H. Campbell and adapted for the screen by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, the film doesn’t rush the viewer, allowing Hawks to delve into the characters past while continuing to develop each one’s place in the story. This tactic reaches out from of the screen and grasps the viewers in a grip that holds on for the duration of the film.
The casual pace of the film also allows for numerous subplots that are paramount to the overall story. (Dickinson’s) captivating character “Feathers” not only provides a distant love interest for (Wayne’s) sheriff John T. Chance, but has a sordid past of her own being the widow of a cheating gambler and a card sharp herself. On our journey, we learn (Martin’s) character “Dude” was actually a gun slinging deputy himself before a failed love affair sent him plummeting down the long neck of a whiskey bottle. In a brief, but important scene with (Brennen’s) “Stumpy” and (Russell’s) power-rancher “Nathan Burdett” we learn that Stumpy owned a nice ranch himself before “Burdett” somehow took his land. After learning that (Nelson’s) “Colorado” is the young gunslinger son of an old-timer that Chance and his buddy “Pat Wheeler” played by (Wayne’s) real life best friend (Ward Bond) knew from years past, we get to the pillar of strength holding the town of Presidio Texas together, John T. Chance, played by (Wayne) in his classic cowboy style.
We learn that sheriff Chance is somewhat uncomfortable around women, as evidenced by his initial contacts with (Dickinson’s) “Feathers” and as he eventually admits to his female antagonist, has gotten “lazy” by hiring out his gun in one place rather than all over. We also see first-hand that no matter what the cost, sheriff Chance has decided to defend the honor of his oath till death if need be, not wanting assistance from the townsfolk because his prisoner isn’t worth any of his citizens getting hurt. That leaves the gun fighting to the fearless foursome with a little help from a beautiful lady card player.
I know what you’re thinking right about now. Just how long is this movie anyway? Well, Hawks works his magic wrapping all of this into two hours and twenty-one minutes, which even by today’s standards is a long film. This running time was achieved at the cost of scenes with popular actors of the day, Harry Carry Jr. Sheb Wooley and Malcolm Atterbury’s scenes being deleted!
With a classic story, intriguing sub plots and a marvelous cast, it’s no wonder Rio Bravo earned a perfect one-hundred percent on Rotten Tomatoes and five of five from Radio.com. With ratings like these, it’s clear I’m not the only fan who reveres this film as their all-time favorite.