„Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon” (McBride 130). This is one of Howard Hawks’ comments on his movie Rio Bravo, which he directed and produced in 1959. In this essay, I will describe the main features of Rio Bravo, deliver a possible interpretation of the characters and finally point out some of the main differences and similarities between Rio Bravo and High Noon.
The film is set in a little village in Texas. All scenes take place in only very few locations: the main street, the jail, the hotel, one of the saloons and at the outskirts of the village (Burdette’s warehouse) during the showdown. “‘Hawks’ town consists of jail, hotel, saloons, and rows of inconspicuous house-fronts […]” (Lusted 161). The main street shows a few shops and business fronts, only leading to several houses of Mexican inhabitants at the end of the town, behind them the desert begins.
The motif of landscape and creation of space – contrary to many other westerns, for instance, directed by John Ford – lacks completely. “[F]or Hawks the West is simply the stage on which his characters […] move. Accordingly, there is no feel of the West in Rio Bravo” (Hardy 269). Nevertheless, an atmosphere of threat is created, though not from the surrounding wilderness, but instead of from the powerful villain, Nathan Burdette, and his followers.
3. The plot – a short summary
The plot can be divided into four parts that is to say the events take place during the course of four days and nights. John T. Chance, the sheriff of a small village in Texas, arrests Joe Burdette because he killed a man in the saloon. He puts him in jail and has to wait for six days until the marshall will arrive in the town and take Joe with him. During these six days Burdette’s brother Nathan, a rich farmer, tries to liberate Joe out of the jail by all means and “bottles up the town” (all quotations are transcribed from the movie). He hires paid killers and makes them shoot a friend of Chance, who had wanted to help him. The Sheriff and his group have to deal with several attacks, until, eventually, it comes to the final showdown at Burdette’s warehouse, where an exchange between Joe and Dude, the deputy sheriff, whom the Burdettes kept as a hostage, should take place. The sheriff defeats the gang together with his group.On the fourth day, this final showdown takes place and the day ends with a humorous scene again in the evening, when Feathers makes Chance declare her his love – a happy ending, of course.
This plot can be called a professional plot: there is a heterogeneous group of heroes which form a team together. Each of them has certain characteristics or special skills and they have to come to an arrangement together in order to fullfil a mission. Usually, the group fights for a weak community, but in the case of Rio Bravo, the community is not set in the foreground. Instead of that, the members of the group have different motives to fight, for example, in order to regain self-respect (Dude).
[…] the essential qualification is to work together […]. This also means that members of the group also have human failings. Acknowledging this, the hero invariably asks only if those who join the group are ‘good enough’ (Lusted 161-162).
A question repeatedly asked by the sheriff during the movie. Chance: “Think you’re good enough?” Dude: “I’d like to find out.” Chance: “So would I”.
4.1 John T. Chance (John Wayne)
It is made clear to the audience that the sheriff is the hero of Rio Bravo. He also functions as a father figure to his companions. He helps them to overcome their personal failures (Dean Martin as the drunk), he takes care for them and tries to protect them from any harm, even endangering his own life, and he is the independent, strong and competent male figure. In short, he knows what is right and wrong and has no problems in sticking consequently to his principles. Wheeler, his friend, refers to Chance as a person who is surely “holding a bull by the tail.”, when he refuses to accept help from him. This is one of the main topics of the movie: the refusal to accept support from others.
Chance’s role as a father figure is obvious from many dialogues thoughout the movie, especially when dealing with Dude, who at one point ironically answers him “Yes, Papa”. The sheriff does not only have a strong physical presence through the outward appearance of John Wayne, the Western hero par excellence, but he needs psychological qualities as well in order to succeed in the forthcoming conflict and to hold his ‘family’ together.
Hence, the figure of John T. Chance always remains a little bit isolated from the other characters, first of all, because he is the boss, but also because he refuses to accept help from his friends, although he desperately needs it, facing the overwhelming power of his enemies. For example, he does not join in the joyful singing of his deputies in one scene, instead of that he watches it with mild amusement.
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- Rio Bravo