Stumbling into a saloon, drunken lawman Dude (Dean Martin) is humiliated by local troublemaker Joe Burdette (Claude Akins). Amidst the ensuing chaos, Dude's stalwart friend, rugged Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) steps in to arrest Joe for killing an innocent bystander. It is a ballsy move given Joe's brother, Nathan Burdette (John Russell) is a powerful rancher who all but owns this town. With Joe holed up at the jail house guarded by cackling, crippled old deputy Stumpy (Walter Brennan), Chance tries to sober up Dude as they prepare for the inevitable siege. He finds an ally in Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a resourceful young cowboy fast with a gun, and sparks a romance with Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a shady but sexy gambler who is new in town. Together this brave but outnumbered bunch face down Burdette and his army of gunmen.
One of the greatest westerns of all time was actually made in response to another milestone in the genre: High Noon (1952). Both legendary producer-director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne took issue with High Noon's story about a sheriff forced to face a band of outlaws alone when his pleas for help go ignored by the townspeople. Wayne went so far as to denounce the film as “un-American” though later recanted when he presented Gary Cooper with the Oscar for Best Actor remarking he wished he could find a script that good. Perhaps because of this origin Rio Bravo is too often mistakenly thought of as some kind of reactionary riposte to the liberal values espoused in Fred Zinnemann's seminal western when it is actually an equally thoughtful, measured, articulate and poetic work.
In High Noon a crisis fractures a community exposing flaws in the American social system. In Rio Bravo a crisis pulls people together driving them to overcome problems both personal (Dude's alcoholism) and social (Burdett's stranglehold on the town). Both films offer valid points of view and while Hawks unabashedly celebrates the values of the mythic American West, he does so with a study of grace under pressure. Perhaps more than any other John Wayne western this one encapsulates those famous words: “A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.” A master of the action movie-as-character-study Hawks spins a story that is deceptively simple yet intricately constructed. Screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett track several plot strands lending equal weight to the siege angle, male bonding (as Chance helps Dude recover his dignity and self-worth), revenge sub-plot (Colorado joins in response to the killing of paternal trail boss Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond)) and love story.
The characters are especially vivid and inhabited by an outstanding cast save for weak link Ricky Nelson. Hawks' original choice Elvis Presley pulled out at the insistence of serial career hobbler Colonel Tom Parker opting to do Flaming Star (1960) instead. Nelson looks like a kid playing cowboy. Look closely and you will notice Hawks carefully coached him through several moves and gestures to disguise his shortcomings. Nevertheless he comes alive during the musical sequences. As with earlier dramatic performances in The Young Lions (1958) and Some Came Running (1958), Rio Bravo proved Dean Martin could handle difficult roles without falling back on his crooner's charisma. Still Hawks was smart enough to know audiences would want to see Martin perform a duet with Ricky Nelson. Although superfluous to the plot it is a wholly delightful scene.
Hawks was constantly adding scenes and encouraged improvisation on the set, something that expanded and added further authenticity to the characters' relationships. Nevertheless the bedrock of the movie was the outstanding script. The sparkling dialogue was likely down to Brackett, Hawks' favourite screenwriter, who had a parallel career as the author of several pulp sci-fi novels. She later co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Her touch is particularly evident in the banter between the Duke's taciturn lawman and Angie Dickinson's flirty, feisty showgirl. Though Wayne towers over proceedings with his trademark swagger, then relative newcomer the lovely Dickinson holds her own against the veteran ensemble as one of Hawks' most winning heroines. It is worth noting that whereas in High Noon Grace Kelly shrugs off shooting someone, here Feathers is left deeply shaken after contributing to the death of three men even if she did it to save Chance's life.
Elsewhere, Hawks' subtle yet propulsive direction is evident right from the powerful but wordless opening sequence which is like a scene from an old silent era two-reel western given psychological depth, taut suspense sequences where Chance and Dude patrol the winding streets after dark and more lighthearted banter between contrasted heroes. Wayne and Martin were so effective together they re-teamed in Henry Hathaway's inferior, though oddly popular The Sons of Katie Elder (1966) while Hawks recycled the plot for the delightful El Dorado (1967) and less successful Rio Lobo (1970). John Carpenter famously lifted several motifs from here for Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), the first of his many overt tributes to Howard Hawks, though Rio Bravo has gone on to influence countless other action movies.