Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Howard Hawks’ Degree of Separation

Posted by Wade Sheeler March 17, 2014 5 Comments 18767 views

Image from "Rio Bravo"

It’s not hard to tell you’re watching a Howard Hawks film. Whether it’s a western, a screwball comedy, a drama; the aesthetics are the same: tough men and the women they love (if there are even any women in sight). The women who can’t hang with men who speak with their fists or guns, don’t hang around long. They either like it or lump it. The Hawks ethos was well established as early as 1928’s A Girl In Every Port and solidified in the ‘30s with very little variation. The one film that best illustrates the Hawks Code is Only Angels Have Wings, which you can read about here.

In fact, Hawks knew what he liked so much and rarely deviated that several of his films were remakes and rehashes of the same story. He remade his comedy Ball of Fire as A Song is Born, Bringing Up Baby as Monkey Business, To Have and Have Not became his own Western archetype which begat Rio Bravo, then El Dorado and Rio Lobo. He also took well-established films and remade their stories to fit his own themes. Mutiny on the Bounty became Red River, The Front PageHis Girl Friday. Hawks may have remade films, both subtly and unsubtly disguised, but he never made a sequel. That is, until El Dorado. Or was it?

Image from "Rio Bravo"

Rio Bravo brought together the best of Hawks’ elements under one roof. A western with John Wayne, buddies creating a tight cabal of manly manness, a woman who can dish it out as well as she can take it, brawling, gun fighting, and most importantly, a judgmental hero who gets to determine who in the team is “good enough,” while not “needing” any of them.

The story goes that Hawks found the film High Noon so repugnant — a sheriff who spends the film’s entirety looking for someone in town to help him fight a vindictive gang and ends up having to do it on his own, as well as have a woman (gasp) save his life — that he had to make a western that opposed every tenet of the former.

Rio Bravo is the somewhat meandering story of a tough town sheriff (Wayne) who defends his drunken deputy (Dean Martin) against some trouble making ranchers. An innocent bystander dies, causing Wayne to lock the offending rancher up. Soon the criminal’s family rides into town to get him out of jail, and it becomes a back and forth war as Wayne fights to protect the jail and his men, who include Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson (as “Colorado” – remember that name) and Walter Brennan as “Stumpy.” Wayne doesn’t “ask” for any of their help, but takes it when they offer. Angie Dickinson, the lone woman, arrives in town on the stage and turns out to be a card shark, soon discovered by Wayne. He tells her to leave town, but she is so smitten by him, she just hangs around. Dean Martin conquers his struggle with the bottle and becomes a worthy partner to Wayne, proving he is “good enough,” and the evil ranchers are sent packing.

Image from "Rio Bravo"

Swap out a western town for the South American “village” of Barranca, the sheriff’s office for an air mail service, and the alcoholic who has to redeem himself and you have 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings, with Dickinson in for the love happy Jean Arthur who has to learn to play by the head pilot’s rules, until she earns the right to “stay”.

Swap John Wayne out for Humphrey Bogart and you have To Have and Have Not, with some of the dialogue between Dickinson and Wayne almost verbatim from the original. And Walter Brennan plays the exact same role in both. Take the bottle away from Dean Martin and give it to Brennan and the two characters are identical.

So Rio Bravo then is the village from South America moved north, with the dialogue between the two romantic leads from To Have and Have Not. As well, Bacall sang two songs in the former, as Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin sing in Rio Bravo.

Audiences and critics didn’t seem to mind. Rio Bravo was a huge success.

Image from "El Dorado"

Flash forward seven years, have one of the two writers for Rio Bravo (Leigh Brackett) adapt a book into another John Wayne vehicle, and you have El Dorado. Here, Wayne is a gunslinger, hired by a wealthy land baron to assist in a range war. When Wayne rides into town he meets up with his old friend, the Sheriff (Robert Mitchum) who, a recovering alcoholic, advises Wayne he may be on the wrong side of the fight. Not wanting to take arms against his buddy, Wayne goes to tell the land baron he no longer wishes to hire himself out, when a misunderstanding pits Wayne against a trigger happy ranch hand, the son of the baron, who Wayne ends up killing. Now the lines are drawn and Wayne and Mitchum fight together with the help of a young James Caan (“Mississippi” – remember “Colorado?”), and the old, gimpy assistant Arthur Hunnicutt. Wayne has to step in for the sheriff when he hits the bottle hard. The attractive saloon owner, once in love with Mitchum, starts falling for Wayne. She hangs around.

Image from "El Dorado"

Not only was a well-tread pattern forming, but Hawks could no longer claim his themes and characters were a coincidence, so word came down that El Dorado was a sequel of sorts. Hawks claimed he was creating a trilogy about the righteous having to defend themselves against insurmountable odds, taking the more unpopular sides.

But in all honesty, El Dorado with name changes aside, is a fairly faithful “remake” of the first. The story beats, so unimportant and trite, that the audience is forced to sit back, relinquish any concern for “who” did “what” and instead, simply enjoy the proceedings. And that’s where Hawks has always flourished. His stories were never about the “what,” but a celebration of the characters and machismo dialogue.

This is an area where John Ford and Hawks become almost identical. While Ford cares “slightly” more about plot than Hawks, he has grand “time outs” for John Wayne and gang (Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, etc.) to brawl, drink and bond (Donovan’s Reef, The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)

Hawks made a third film with this same theme, Rio Lobo, in 1970, but the formula had finally petered out; the result still an enjoyable romp, but a shadow of its earlier incarnations.

Image from "El Dorado"

So what was Hawks’ secret? Why was he able to remake and remix the same movies for decades and still entertain? It’s not just comfortable and comforting tropes, strong genre understanding and execution, or an eye for the dramatic, but his casting. His films offer John Wayne, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn at their best. He understood his actors’ strengths, and honed and  developed scripts that always showed them in their most flattering light.

Very few successful directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Woody Allen) reveled in not just revisiting the same stories and themes, but the same filmic idea over and over again, as if building and rebuilding a city or statue in its own image, creating slight variations but hoping for the same response. Hawks did this almost better than anyone. And Rio Bravo and El Dorado are two perfect examples of that seemingly effortless ability.

About Wade Sheeler

TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. I still make mixed tapes if I like you enough.

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There are 5 Comments

  1. - March 17, 2014
      -   Reply

    Love Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo, El Dorado and pretty much everything else he ever directed. Wrote briefly once about Rio Bravo here:

    Good post.

  2. - March 17, 2014
      -   Reply

    Love your essay. Thanks for the link. Agree with you completely.

  3. Michael Fulmer
    - October 9, 2014
      -   Reply

    This really sums up your essay quite well. Though I prefer El Dorado, it’s for the reasons you stated. I just enjoy Mitchum’s style of taciturn machismo. To some extent we are seeing Scorsese doing the same thing with his recurring cadre of actors in the urban gangster tomes.

  4. Michael Fulmer
    - October 9, 2014
      -   Reply

    “He understood his actors’ strengths, and honed and developed scripts that always showed them in their most flattering light.”

    I meant to include this in the beginning.

  5. - October 9, 2014
      -   Reply

    Thank you so much. Appreciate your comments and agree!

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