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18 Things We Learned From John Carpenter’s ‘Rio Bravo’ Commentary

“Dean Martin wants a drink.”
Rio Bravo Commentary
By  · Published on March 8th, 2017

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Commentators: John Carpenter (filmmaker and fan), Richard Schickel (film critic)

1. Schickel believes this is director Howard Hawks’ “last great film.”

2. Hawks is Carpenter’s favorite director, and this is one of favorite films ever made. He’s long credited it with being the inspiration for his own Assault on Precinct 13.

3. Both men comment on Hawks’ decision to open the film with several minutes of dialogue-free setup saying it’s a nod of sorts to silent cinema and also played against the time (the late ’50s) where the trend was to jump right into the chatter.

4. “Hawks is a director whose camera is always in the right place at the right time.” Carpenter says this regarding the shot of Dude (Dean Martin) crouching to recover a coin in the spittoon only to have Chance (John Wayne) kick it away and then look down at the camera in disappointment.

5. Wayne was the last person to compliment his own acting skills, but Carpenter sees him as a consummate actor for roles such as the sheriff here. “Maybe not Shakespearean, but who can spin like that?”

6. Schickel points out the somewhat odd casting of Martin here as “he had only recently ended his partnership with Jerry Lewis” where he played the straight man. “This was a very brief period… where he took himself seriously as an actor and the critics and the public took him seriously as an actor.” Schickel sees it as a mystery of Hollywood why Martin’s incredibly strong performances in The Young Lions, Some Came Running, and Rio Bravo quickly gave way to a lazy career. Sounds like someone needed to re-watch The Cannonball Run

7. Walter Brennan had lost his teeth due to an accident of some kind and gave Hawks the option of playing the role “[fake] teeth in or teeth out.”

8. Robert Mitchum’s brother, John, plays the bartender in the scene where Chance and Dude enter the bar in search of the wounded bad guy.

9. The belt buckle Wayne wears during the film was a gift from Hawks upon the completion of their first film together, Red River. It features the brand from the ranch his character owned in the film.

10. Hawks was surprised to discover that screenwriter Leigh Brackett was a woman.

11. The scene where Feathers (Angie Dickinson) suggests Chance stay in her room for the night led the Production Code Administration to question a possible implication that the pair might actually “bed down together.”

12. Carpenter comments on the scene where Dude has been abducted and Chance finds himself exposed only to have a rifle tossed his way by Colorado (Ricky Nelson) which he then cocks and fires almost in mid-air. He says there’s a real difficulty there for the actors. He points out that he tried to do it in one of his films, and while he doesn’t name it I’d say Assault on Precinct 13 is the one he’s most likely referring to. And if that’s correct, then I’d say he and Darwin Joston succeeded. (Check the 1:27 mark of the trailer below.)

13. The two men disagree on the sequence that sees Dude sing while Colorado strums his guitar. Carpenter still enjoys it while Schickel appears to absolutely hate it.

14. Schickel says Hawks made this film as “an answer” of sorts to some other westerns which he “loathed.” One of them was High Noon which Carpenter points out was despised by both Hawks and Wayne. “[Hawks] felt that High Noon was kind of a cowardly movie,” says Schickel, “in that the sheriff, Gary Cooper in the film, runs around as Howard liked to put it, and he put it this way frequently, like a chicken with his head cut off because he was seeking assistance.”

15. “Hawks often let his actors ad-lib on the set,” says Carpenter, adding that they would begin the day with a rehearsal and then follow it with a table read where new dialogue options were suggested before proceeding to actually shoot the scenes in question. “Sounds like a very humane way of working.”

16. Carpenter compares Hawks’ directorial style to Clint Eastwood’s in that “his visuals don’t call attention to themselves. Many directors will shoot a scene, and they will tell you how interesting the sequence is and how brilliant they are by the camera angles they use.”

17. The big action finale required them to blow up the villains’ warehouse twice because the first time was ruined after the prop folks filled it with colored paper. It apparently looked awful, “like a Chinese firecracker exploding,” so they reset and re-shot the sequence.

18. Carpenter acknowledges that this isn’t as profound a film as The Searchers, but he says it’s still one of the greatest westerns of all time. “It’s almost like watching a piece of classical music. It’s slow and elegant and it doesn’t rush, and it goes from one movement to the next and it carries you along with it, and if you give yourself over to Rio Bravo as I hope you have while watching this film, and you give yourself over to the time this was made and the love behind it and the performers, I think you can see this is one of the most entertaining films ever made.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“There’s Wayne in his typical outfit.”

“Chance was the name of Howard Hawks’ girlfriend through the ‘50s.”

“Now we have sort of painful ethnic humor here.”

“I suppose to audiences today this seems absolutely ridiculous, but it was fun back in 1959.”

“John Wayne has one of the worst voices of all time.”

“John Wayne always wore his pants a little shorter than anyone else’s.”

John Wayne Westerns Film Collection [Blu-ray]

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, this is one of those spliced-together commentaries pulling from two sources. It’s bad enough that we shift between Carpenter and Schickel and that it’s a 40/60 split, but there’s a surprising number of silences here too. When they do talk their shared appreciation for the film is highly evident. Carpenter talks about the film’s shots, the structure, and westerns in general, while Schickel makes sure to remind us that he was good friends with Hawks. There are some interesting bits here, and their enthusiasm for the film is great, but it’s not a strong commentary overall.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.