The last time I posted an article in this category it was August of 2012 — shame on me — which is bad. I love doing this series of posts I hope to be more diligent about getting them out there.
This time around I’m taken into the world of John Wayne Westerns to discuss his film by Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo. You can follow all of Rupert’s writings over at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, where he’s constantly championing forgotten classics. He’s been on a stint of posting guest articles of people’s favourite classic discoveries of the last year… may be some inspiration for me.
Regardless, check out the discussion below:
Me: Rio Bravo was first released theatrically in 1959. When was the first time you saw the film and tell me a bit of the context of how you ended up seeing it that first time.
RP: I first saw RIO BRAVO in college(circa 1995). I was attending the University of Wisconsin Madison and had just started taking film classes. This was an introductory film class and I loved it. I had already been a big fan of movies(had worked in video stores since High School) but this class really gave me an appreciation for two things that are very dear to me now: Howard Hawks and John Wayne. We watched THE SEARCHERS, RED RIVER and RIO BRAVO in this class and I suddenly understood the appeal Wayne had. He kind of blew me away. I had always felt he was a bit overrated to that point in my life and this class turned me around completely. The man is a legend for a reason.
Me: So what does John Wayne mean to you?
RP: Hmmm. Good Question. I guess I came to Wayne in a roundabout way. My first exposure to him was actually via Kurt Russell’s take on Wayne via his performance in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. I enjoyed that very much. I guess I had just assumed Wayne was too all-american for me and I guess that misconception was what lead me to be so taken with him when I saw him in films like THE SEARCHERS and RED RIVER. In both those films he played characters that were far from perfect, but absolutely compelling. And then with RIO BRAVO he was just the man so I just thought of him as an all-around very talented actor.
Me: Going back to that first viewing of the film in college for you. Can you remember the point in time when you switched from being skeptical of all these things (Wayne and such) to actually being won over by the film?
RP: I think it was a gradual process that occurred across the viewings of the three films in the class. One moment I always remember though was the remarkable, basically dialogue-less opening sequence of RIO BRAVO. That blew me away. And later in the film when Wayne’s character Chance says, “You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.” One of the great lines of all time.
Me: One of the main points of this series is to discuss movies that influenced your love for films. I know you mentioned that you saw this as part of a class’ curriculum. How did Rio Bravo (and possibly the rest of that courses’ films) change not only what you associated with good movies but also what you tried to help guide what you wanted to watch from then on?
RP: I remember we talked a lot about Auteur theory in that class and that had a big impact on the way I watched films. I was already aware of directors and how they could have a certain stamp they might put on a movie, but studying Howard Hawk’s and the thematic of professionalism that is a big part of most of his films helped make the whole auteur theory a bit more concrete to me. Our professor talked about Hawk’s professionalism in reference to ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and that scene after a pilot dies and his dinner is still sitting on the table. Somebody asks, “Where’s Joe?”(the deceased pilot) and Cary Grant responds, “Who’s Joe?”. The idea being that he wasn’t “good enough” and so he ceased to exist. I think the Hawksian ideas and character types stuck with me and stood out. From then on I begin to examine films a bit more closely for common thematics, character types, and even the use of the same actors and how all those things brought about a possible directorial “stamp”.
Me: Bringing in that theme of professionalism into Rio Bravo we must definitely look at Chance (being the sheriff) and even the villain of Burdette to some degree. Do you ever fond yourself besmirching characters for being professional to a fault? I think the best example of this for me comes from Hawk’s His Girl Friday with Hildy.
RP: Yeah I think so. RIO BRAVO strikes the right balance with that for sure(both the heroes and the villains), but Hildy is a character that’s come to trouble me a bit over time. HIS GIRL FRIDAY was an absolute revelation the first time I saw it. I could not believe a film from the 1930s could be so snappy, so clever. But yes, Hildy for me started to become one of those characters that was less fulfilling to watch because of that “do or die” professionalism. I get that it’s supposed to be funny(and maybe comically tragic), but over time, I’ve veered away from the film to other Hawks movies because of it.
Me: You’re first viewing of this film was near two decades ago. How over time has the film changed for you as you watch it now as opposed to that first time in college?
RP: I’ve really come to love the characters and the film more and more with each viewing. It’s become a film I try to watch once a year or so. Like visiting old friends
Me: Back in the days of Wayne and such westerns were given a slightly romantic tone, as if filmmakers longed for that time to return. Today, in films like the remake of True Grit and Unforgiven, we see filmmakers trying to remove all the romance and making the films (for lack of a better word) more real. How do you feel about this transition that the genre has gone through over the years? Do you agree with this assessment in general?
RP: Honestly, I’ll always love westerns, but the bleak realism you mention gets a bit tiresome for me personally over time. Thankfully there are plenty of older westerns I’ve yet to see!
Me: A question, which I always like to ask about films that people have spent so much time adoring, is about criticism of film. Regardless of our crazed love for these films it still doesn’t remove any room for criticism. Are there any criticisms of this film that you’ve had over the years? Have you come to terms with those at all and how? If you could change anything about this movie would you and if so what would that be?
RP: Not sure I’d ever presume to change anything about it, but a few of the romantic scenes with Wayne and Angie Dickinson don’t play quite as charming as they used to.
Me: She definitely plays the part of the woman begging to be noticed by our hero a bit too loud at times. Is it something that you feel could’ve been reworked for today or just a subplot that distracts from the story of Chance and his deputies keeping to their duties?
RP: It might be able to be reworked, but I’m not sure how. It’s the way Wayne’s character plays it too. That said, it doesn’t bother me all that much, if it did, the film wouldn’t be my second favorite of all time. With some films, rue watching over and over really makes certain parts stad out like sore thumbs. That’s not the case here really. I’ve noticed for instance that the more I’ve watched THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK(which is a film I love obviously) for example, the more I really tire of certain sections( see: Dagobah). It kind of bums me out when I get to that point with a movie, so I try not to dwell on it.
Me: Before we end off this discussion I wanted to ask you, as a fan of Hawks, about his filmography. Howard Hawks is a filmmaker loved by many and also massive blindspot in my cinematic education. It’s noted that throughout his career of over 40 films directed he’s only been nominated once at the Oscars, and the only time he left with any prize was in 1975 when he was given an honorary award. As a film lover who’s yet to dive deeply into Hawks filmography which of his films do you feel essential to sum up his particular stamp on cinema?
RP: It always saddens me when a remarkable filmmaker is not really recognized in his time. Like Douglas Sirk though, I think Hawks was just seen as a commercial filmmaker in his day. Thankfully, the wonderful thing about films is that they have the amazing ability to live on and find appreciation and significance in the many years following their release. It does still take us lovers of older cinema to keep their legacy alive though. With my blog and online interactions in general, it’s been a wonderful thing to find that there are so many folks out there that still have an interest in older films and are hungry to seek them out. This pleases me greatly. Hawks is a guy that has certainly lived on and thanks to filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and others who love him, hopefully he’ll be relevant for a long while. In terms of his films that are most dear to me, I’d say there are a ton of them(and I’m still not done seeing them all). My favorites are probably RIO BRAVO, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, BRINGING UP BABY & BALL OF FIRE, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP have a special place for me as they were two of the first of his that I ever saw. TWENTIETH CENTURY is worth your time as well. There’s a lot of good stuff there to dig into in his filmography and I hope you enjoying exploring it.