Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rio Bravo and Confused Mythology

Chez Buce enjoyed a screening of Howard Hawks' (John Wayne's) Rio Bravo the other night, probably more as a classroom exercise than an entertainment. We didn't know each other back when the film came out in 1959 but we now stipulate that neither one of us would have attended the premier except as a condition of probation. Still, we were curious to know what kind of film would rate a score of 100 percent at Rotten Tomatoes.

I guess the best thing you can say is that we did get through all 140 minutes of it, and it does have its points: John Wayne as a flawed and vulnerable hero with a bunch of flawed and vulnerable sidekicks (Dean Martin as a reformed drunk--now, there's a stretch). Oh, and Angie Dickinson almost dominating a cast otherwise nearly all male. The pace is interesting, too: that Hawks fellow does know how to reel out a narrative.

I assume it was an eye-opener for dedicated Wayne fans to see their hero as thoughtful, easy-going, prone to misjudgment, but able at last to work as the focal point on a team. Teamwork: yes, that's the ticket. Which is why I find so puzzling what seems to be the received narrative of the place of Rio Bravo in film history:
Rio Bravo (1959) was an answer to the pessimism of High Noon, which have been seen as an allegory for the McCarthy era. Behind the script was the blacklisted writer Carl Foreman, who went into self-imposed exile to England. Hawks objected the film because he didn't think "a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help..."
Huh? Excuse me, but doesn't this have it exactly backwards? Isn't the conservative tradition that of the besieged loner, underappreciated and almost overmatched as he achieves the goal of protecting the freedoms on an indifferent multitude? And isn't it the liberal mythology that We're All In This Together--the drunk, the untested kid, the geezer even (geeze louise) the girl? Couldit be that Rio Bravo is the film in which Hawks/Wayne, outs himself as a Unitarian?

Side Note: As I say, neither Mrs. Buce nor I would have counted ourselves as a Wayne fan in youth. It does seem that each of us is ready to make one exception. Hers: The Quiet Man, where Wayne and Victor McLaglen beat each other senseless and (of course) wind up as fast friends. Mine: True Grit, where Wayne wears and eyepatch and shouts "fill your hand, you sonofabitch!" Not sure we are up for two more evenings of Wayne, though; at least for now, Rio Bravo is enough.

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