Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Rio Lobo (1970) dir. Howard Hawks
Starring John Wayne, Jorge Rivero, Christopher Mitchum, Jennifer O’Neill, Sherry Lansing and Jack Elam
By Greg Klymkiw
While I have fond memories of Rio Lobo from when I first saw it on the big screen as a kid with Dad, I should have guessed something was wrong when my memories were little more than assuming I’d enjoyed the picture. No other details were seared into my brain save for the opening train robbery sequence. After seeing this movie 41 years later on Blu-ray release, I can definitely vouch for the train robbery – it’s a genuinely kick-ass set piece.
Having the distinction of being the last movie directed by the great Howard Hawks, this might perhaps be the only reason not to completely dismiss it. That said, Rio Lobo is a reasonably pleasant 114-minute duster. In spite of the familiar territory of the plot, the screenplay, co-written by Leigh Brackett, is a loose re-telling of Hawks’s classic Rio Bravo and the entertaining but not-so-classic El Dorado (both of which were also written by Brackett). And gosh-darn-it, the picture is not without merit.
Beginning during the civil war, the story involves a Union Colonel (played by John Wayne) whose pay train is robbed by a couple of Confederates (played by Jorge Rivero and Christopher Mitchum). Wayne realizes they’re the two responsible for the hard, dirty work, but the robbery itself has been ordered by someone inside the Union army. When the war is over, Wayne becomes pals with Mitchum and Rivero (he views their pre-war actions as just that – an “act of war”) and the three of them team up to track down the Union traitor (whose actions Wayne views as an “act of treason”). This all converges when the trio helps out the settlers in and around the nearby Rio Lobo, who are beleaguered and bullied by a corrupt land baron. (I’ll let you guess whom the Union Army traitor turns out to be.) At one point, like the aforementioned Hawks westerns, a motley assortment of good guys hole up in a jail whilst the bad guys lay siege.
So in terms of plot, it’s mostly a case of been there done that, but there are worse crimes a western can commit. It’s all in the delivery.
On the plus side, the action set pieces are extremely thrilling. Hawks was wise to hire ace action and stunt genius Yakima Canutt (the man solely responsible for the legendary chariot race in Wyler’s Ben-Hur, among other great cinematic rollercoaster rides), and his second unit direction includes some truly masterful carnage and derring-do.
Another good move on Hawks’s part was re-enlisting screenwriter Brackett to his cause. Not only is the plotting reasonably solid, the movie is peppered with some really crisp dialogue. The problem is that so many of the actors in the film are completely at a loss as to how to deliver their lines.
John Wayne seems up to the challenge, but having to play opposite the sad likes of Jennifer O’Neill (her line-thudding monotone is especially egregious) and the handsome but stilted Jorge Rivero appears to visibly drive the Duke to distraction onscreen. On the other hand, Wayne is such a great actor and true star that one is still glued to him throughout and happy enough to amble along the familiar trail his character is on. Our first introduction to Wayne is especially terrific and sets the tone of his character perfectly. When a young officer approaches Wayne and apologizes for disturbing him, Wayne responds in his deadpan drawl, “You were told to disturb me. You’d have been a lot sorrier if you hadn’t.” Gotta love the Duke!
One also assumes Brackett had a hand in the many funny jokes involving Wayne’s paunchy physique. As the story goes, when Hawks was running into trouble with William Faulkner on the screenplay for The Big Sleep he demanded the immediate assistance of “that guy Brackett” to punch things up. Having written primarily science fiction to that point, Brackett also wrote an amazing hard-boiled detective novel, “No Good for a Corpse,” and the writing endeared itself to Hawks as just what he needed. Throughout many pictures, including those of Hawks, “that guy Brackett” handled HERSELF with the craft and aplomb of an old pro – that she most definitely was. My favourite John-Wayne-directed joke in Rio Lobo is when some strapping young men lift his dead weight after knocking him out cold and one of them quips, “He’s heavier than a baby whale”.
The banter delivered via the screenplay to O’Neill and Rivero is exceptionally well written, but neither actor can attack it with the ping-pong ferocity that was such a hallmark of Hawks’s great comedies and most certainly not to the level displayed by Bogie and Bacall in Hawks’s first teaming with Brackett in The Big Sleep. As the film proceeds, one can almost feel the frustration Hawks must have been fraught with as scene after scene involving these two drags the movie down to some considerable depths.
Much better in the supporting cast is future producer and studio head Sherry Lansing who proves to be a gorgeous and terrific actress. If only she’d had O’Neill’s role. There’s also able support from Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher, who is a lightweight compared to Dad but attractive and affable enough. He’d have been great in Rivero’s role. Thankfully, there are some wonderful old hands like Jack Elam (chewing the scenery like only he could) and a nice bit from Hank (Ole Mose) Worden.
If you’re a fan of Hawks, westerns, good writing (albeit butchered by some awful actors) and The Duke, Rio Lobo will prove to be worth seeing. How memorable it will be is another question, but I can assure you that my second helping after four decades was not without merit.
Rio Lobo is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Video. It has no extra features, but the movie looks just fine in high-definition, and thankfully some over-zealous flunky in the transfer suite hasn’t seen fit to remove the grain and given the film some quality colour balance. Should you buy it? I would. But that’s me.