Rio Bravo: The anti-High Noon
(Hat tip: Creative Minority Report)
Although I enjoy Westerns as much as any other red-blooded American, I have never been a fan of the one movie that appears to be the favorite Western of the cultural elites: High Noon.
I once wondered - back in my Clinton Derangement Syndrome days - whether my distaste for High Noon had to do with the fact that it is Bill Clinton's favorite movie. Now, however, I realize that my reasons for disliking the movie have nothing to do with Bill Clinton, but, nevertheless, are likely to be the very reasons that Bill Clinton does like High Noon.
And they are the same reasons that Rio Bravo, which turns 50 this year, is one of my favorites:
... Howard Hawks’ masterpiece stemmed from his disgust with the joyless anti-heroics of uptight, melodramatic westerns like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957) — dark “message movies” that seemed to revel in smugly depicting small-town Americans as cynics and cowards... the brazen slap across the face that High Noon had given America’s western mythology had bothered him. “I made Rio Bravo,” he later told an interviewer, “because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good western.”(emphasis added)
In his now-famous 1971 Playboy interview, John Wayne recalled his own loathing for the film:Everyone says High Noon was a great picture because [Dmitri] Tiomkin wrote some great music for it and because Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly were in it. In the picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to church and asks for help and the guys go, “Oh well, oh gee.” And the women stand up and say, “You rats, you rats.” So Cooper goes out alone. It’s the most un-American thing I ever saw in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ole Coop putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it.Some critics like to nitpick and remind us that Cooper doesn’t actually step on his discarded tin star, but Wayne’s then-twenty-year-old memory is plenty close enough for government work. The conclusion of High Noon (former President Bill Clinton’s favorite movie, natch) has marshal Will Kane casting his badge into the dirt with a sneer, his features oozing contempt for the yellow-bellied townsfolk he defended. “That was like belittling a medal of honor,” Wayne seethed privately to his friends. And even as he graciously did his pal Gary Cooper the favor of stepping up at the 1953 Academy Awards and accepting the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon on Cooper’s behalf, the Duke began thinking about how such a role should have been played, and how he might someday use his superstar clout to craft the same basic story according to his own sensibilities. A story where the town didn’t cringe and run, but instead backed the marshal with their guns and their lives against the black-souled gangsters arrayed against them. A story which would ennoble America, flaws and all, instead of soiling her with a revisionist history at odds with how the brave pioneers of the west really acted.
If there is a single criticism of Rio Bravo that grates above all others, it is the widely-held idea that the jailhouse duet between Martin and Nelson is a major artistic misstep, superfluous and corny. Nonsense. The memorable scene in question occurs almost two hours in. For much of the film, the audience has endured a mournful and threatening Spanish dirge called “El Degüello” (”a throat-slitting”), rumored to have been played by Santa Anna’s troops to the doomed defenders of the Alamo to weaken their resolve. It’s a song the villains play to signify “no quarter,” and as it begins to grate on the heroes’ nerves in Rio Bravo, we the audience worry right along with them. Then, deep in the movie, in a gripping emotional scene, Dean Martin with great agony renounces the bottle and regains his manhood. Finally, at long last, all four men are united in purpose, their doubts behind them. At that exact moment Hawks gives us a much-needed respite via the relaxed singing in the jailhouse. Coming on the heels of all that dramatic strain, it serves as a massive, cathartic release, a musical sunset after the long storms of the first two acts. It is male bonding on a par with the protagonists of Jaws (1975) comparing scars and warbling “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” It is the cementing of an oath-bound brotherhood between friends.
As Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sing, we get lingering reaction shots of Brennan and Wayne appreciating the music — the first relaxed, genuine smiles we’ve seen for a long time. We listen as Dude and Colorado effortlessly merge their voices and complement each other, the beginnings of the teamwork that will become so important in the trials ahead. Stumpy asks Colorado to play something that he can sing along with, and Nelson obliges, bringing Brennan into the emotional core that has formed. This is one of the very few scenes without arguing or bickering of any kind — it’s a peek into the true feelings of a pseudo-family newly formed to confront a daunting menace. By the end of two songs, these disparate personalities have gained a much deeper sense of friendship and fidelity. We the audience have seen them at their most human — not as cardboard cutout plot points, but as people with longings and heartaches and dreams beyond the dusty and dangerous present. It’s the kind of scene that couldn’t possibly exist in a film like High Noon, with its relentless cynicism and sense of betrayal. And that, of course, is the point. “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” has become a thematic mirror-image to the sinister “El Degüello,” and it’s no coincidence that, late in the picture, Hawks has the former tune playing on the barroom piano in the hotel, serving as as a subtle, triumphant reminder of which song — and which worldview and moral code — has won the day.
Rio Bravo Trailer
Dean Martin & Ricky Nelson: “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me”