My favorite movie stars John Wayne as a Texas sheriff struggling to hold a powerful land baron’s no-good brother for murder. The land baron has an endless army of cutthroat mercenaries. Wayne has a drunken deputy played by Dean Martin, a crippled curmudgeon played by Walter Brennan, a young gunslinger played by Ricky Nelson, and a showgirl played by Angie Dickinson.
The first ten minutes establish the premise with minimal dialogue. From there, the story unfolds at a languid pace. Much of the film sees the cast sitting or standing around indoors, talking or reacting to one another.
And here, dear reader, I falter. I’m not sure why the film works so well. I can point to Wayne and Martin’s charisma, but the film speaks to something deeper. A good chunk revolves around Wayne rehabilitating Martin. Wayne doesn’t coddle him, but it’s not “tough love” either. Wayne believes Martin will pull through. For Martin, Wayne’s faith proves stronger than any addiction.
It’s a wonderful male fantasy, and for two hours and change, I believe it. Every time. Wayne represents the strong, honest, capable, professional man I strive to be. Martin embodies the flawed, vulnerable man I feel I am. Wayne’s faith in Martin is Wayne’s faith in me. Every viewing of Rio Bravo delivers a low-key cathartic experience. It’s not a heavy film—comic relief book-ends the most powerful scenes—but it punches above its weight.
And about the comic relief. Much of it comes via Brennan, but repeat viewings have lent a comedic shade to many of Wayne’s lines. Like Billy Wilder’s best films, Rio Bravo uses comedy as a subtle distraction. When Wayne says, “Sorry don’t get it done Dude,” I smirk at the delivery but the message resonates.