A brief abridgment of an essay I wrote for a class. We were supposed to put these on a blog and I thought it would be easier to put this on here, even though it doesn’t quite fit the scope of the rest of the blog.
Theorist Richard Slotkin claims that the western represents an attempt to contextualize “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.” Imagining a clearer example of that than Rio Brovo would prove difficult. Its lens, however, focuses on American masculinity, with frontier myths put on the back burner. The film’s principle characters are either paragons of male virtue or must re-learn how to become such. Through violence the rightful masculine authority is asserted, born, re-born, and otherwise put in its rightful place. However, its emphasis on masculine friendship shows the real need for male vulnerability, even as much of the text fights against it.
First, a brief summary. Rio Bravo is the story of John T. Chance (John Wayne.) A sheriff who arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Atkins), the brother of a powerful rancher. With only Dude (Dean Martin), his deputy and a recovering alcoholic, and Stumpy (Walter Brennen), a lame and old sharpshooter, by his side, he must fight to protect the jail from the dozens of men hired to break through it. The world of Rio Bravo is one where the rightful order is undone by powerful communities and must be set right by a few, good men.
John Wayne is the specter of that world, almost like a holy ghost. In this story, he becomes a stoic and static elemental force of masculinity. The movie is about how other characters react to that figure. The clearest example of this is Dude, who at the beginning of the film has been reduced to a beggar and an alcoholic, but by the end becomes a deputy worthy to John Wayne’s sheriff. It is through his eyes that the audience first looks up at John Wayne and that initial shot sets up the dynamic between them. Chance is an aspirational mentor for Dude. There is little explicit showing of how Chance cares, it is all through these grunts and gestures. Nevertheless, Dude feels loved enough to make it out. It is only this manliness that could manage it. Thus, the film embraces this masculine power trip with a wholly uncritical eye and frames the characters who embrace it with remarkable affection.
Despite all the emphasis on how these men must get free and embrace their own power, they all need each other and they are bound to protect a community that needs them too. The most affecting moments of the film are these moments of friendship. The film indulges these moments too. Its runtime is leisurely, letting us dwell with its characters. In one quiet moment, before the last act’s final storm, the sheriff and his crew sing together. The song idealizes the lone ranger, “just my rifle, my pony, and me,” but that idealization contrasts with its context, friends singing a song together. Just like this moment, Rio Bravo unwittingly reenforces the need for male vulnerability and connection.
John Wayne’s masculine legend is at the heart of Rio Bravo. It clearly sees his figure as representative of an absolute moral good and the other characters are tested in how well they live up to that legend. Dude is a figure who has lost the claim to it. The film’s journey is his attempt to reclaim it. The film asserts a return, in a lawless, fractured world, to a masculine power. Even so, it has a strange tenderness toward these men and exposes a soft, affectionate side through their interactions. Rio Bravo’s emphasis on masculine independence, its reverential treatment of John Wayne, and Dude’s redemption are reenforces a male, natural order, even as its quiet moments expose the need for male vulnerability.