BFI Classics: Rio Bravo

Author: Robin Wood


There are films that you love even though you know that they’re flawed and probably not to everyone’s taste. One of my dearest friends, who I respect very much, once made the mistake of confessing to me that her favourite film was Mighty Ducks II. Although she had her reasons, I could never look at her the same way again.

Howard Hawks’ 1958 Western Rio Bravo is not in any way like Mighty Ducks II, but Robin Wood’s lively essay acknowledges the film’s faults without undermining the case for its status as a classic. Wood has obviously spent many a long hour in the company of Rio Bravo and has a relationship with it that seems a bit like a long-term love affair: while the film has quirks that drive him nuts, Wood is still hopelessly in love. In the notes, he even admits that the first time he saw Rio Bravo he thought it was “ridiculous” and “just another Western”.

It’s hard not to be as won over by Rio Bravo as Wood was once you buy into his arguments, and his insights are truly revelatory. “I recently taught a graduate course on ‘Sexual Deviancy in Film’”, Wood says at one point. “…I began by asking if any of the students had seen a John Wayne Western in which there was a scene of cruising, mutual masturbation and ejaculation.” (For the record, it’s the scene in Red River where John Ireland and Montgomery Clift eye each other up before going for a shooting contest in which they “admiringly fondle each other’s guns before firing”.)

Wood acknowledges that being gay might influence his reading of Hawks’ films but it’s pretty hard not to see where he’s coming from. His write up of “the Hawksian woman” is also insightful and actually changed my opinion of Angie Dickinson, who I’d always thought of as one of those actors who’s little more than scenery.

Perhaps the best thing about this essay is the conclusion, where Wood perfectly encapsulates the problems with those “100 best” lists or those “most beautiful people” magazine articles. Wood admits that he was being “perfectly ridiculous” when he named Rio Bravo number one on his list of ‘Ten best films ever made’ for Sight and Sound magazine. “What criteria can possibly encompass all [the various genres of film]? Even if we restricted the choice to fictional narrative films, who has seen all of them, from all over the world? Who is qualified to judge?” He then goes on to say that although he admires Citizen Kane (the default choice for ‘greatest film ever made’), he doesn’t love it in the way he loves Rio Bravo. Every film fan should be so lucky as to have the chops to craft a love letter like this to their favourite movie.

Clare Moody

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