The lasting influence of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo

Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo was a classic Western, and influenced a legion directors, including John Carpenter. Aliya looks back...

Remakes are part and parcel of the movie world, but it’s unusual for the same director to remake his own work. Rio Bravo is unique. Director Howard Hawks remade it, not once, but twice, and with the same lead actor every time – John Wayne. And after that, the film went on to influence a number of other directors, resulting in some brilliant movies that owe a great deal to this 1959 Western about a cowboy, a sidekick, and a drunkard who choose to make a stand in the name of justice.

Rio Bravo has an interesting origin – it was made as a reaction by Hawks and Wayne against what they perceived as the anti-Americanism of High Noon, where the Sheriff (played by Gary Cooper) asks for help to fight outlaws, and is rejected by the townsfolk until he stands alone. Rio Bravo posits that the opposite would happen in American society – the hero does not ask for help. He doesn’t need it. He stands for justice, and the townsfolk line up to help him as best they can. The weak will be protected by the strong.

No matter where you stand on the political aspects of the film, it is a great example of both Hawks and Wayne doing what they do best. Hawks made some of the most entertaining films of the 1930s and 40s, including Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, and To Have And Have Not, and he had a style of his own that is often unappreciated for its simplicity. Never a fan of the close-up, he preferred shots where the relationships between the characters and the locations were highlighted. Rio Bravo shows us actors framed in windows or doorways, so we see them in a wider setting and build up our own sense of the geography of the small town – the saloon, the jailhouse, the long dark street that connects them. These shots establish the action so well; we know that there is nowhere to run when the showdown starts. 

The characters are also a great strength of the film. John Wayne never looked particularly sexy, but Angie Dickinson works so hard as Feathers, the smitten love-interest, that you buy it. Wayne’s character, John T Chance, looks poleaxed by her attentions, which gives him a charm that sometimes eluded him. There are other great performances, particularly from Dean Martin as Dude, the drunk who has to sober up, and Ricky Nelson as Colorado, the young gunslinger.

Ad – content continues below

Hawks asked Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett to write the script; Leigh Brackett was a science fiction writer who turned to film and worked on scripts such as The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner) and The Empire Strikes Back. She was involved with all three versions of Rio Bravo that Hawks made, and she had a gift with dialogue that shines through.

Experience tells us that remakes are usually inferior. Why, then, should anyone sit through Hawks’ remakes of his own film? He made El Dorado in 1966 and followed it with Rio Lobo in 1970. All three films have the same plot, same writer, and Wayne plays pretty much the same character (although the name changes) in all three. Yet El Dorado is great and Rio Lobo – well, it remains watchable, if only for Wayne.


El Dorado is a lot of fun, and this is mainly due to the casting. Dean Martin is replaced by Robert Mitchum, and Mitchum is wonderful in it: funny, tragic, and dangerous, all in one performance. And Colorado becomes Mississippi, played by James Caan – a knife-wielding cowboy out for revenge. Also, Ed Asner and great character actor Arthur Hunnicutt make appearances in El Dorado. Is it as good as Rio Bravo? For me personally, James Caan is better than Ricky Nelson. But the dialogue and the tension in Rio Bravo is terrific. I can’t choose between them.

Rio Lobo is less successful, I think, mainly because of the casting, but also the direction seems less sharp and the thrill of the situation is not present in the same way. In Rio Lobo, the role of the young sidekick is played by Christopher Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s son) and he looks uncomfortable, particularly with his love-interest, Jennifer O’Neill, who gives one of those stilted performances that makes you wince. It’s far from Howard Hawks’ finest work. It’s the same script, more or less, but this time around it feels tired. And no wonder – by then Hawks was 74 years old and Wayne was 63. 

And then, once Hawks had given up on his theme, John Carpenter picked up where he left off. In 1976, at the age of 28, Carpenter made his second film, called Assault On Precinct 13. I’m a big fan of Carpenter, and part of that is his long-term devotion to Howard Hawks, and Rio Bravo in particular. He updated the story and mixed in a dollop of Night Of The Living Dead and Once Upon A time In The West, and called it ‘The Anderson Alamo’ initially – this version was written under the pseudonym John T Chance, which is the name of John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo.

Ad – content continues below

When it was made as Assault On Precinct 13, it was a great, pared script, with that scary lack of motivation given to the antagonists, and a cruelty mixed in, particularly towards children, that remains very powerful. There’s a famous scene at an ice cream van that is shudderingly horrible. Other great elements include the score, a distinctive synthesiser sound that becomes synonymous with Carpenter.  But the set-up – a dark street, a sense of threat, a few people trapped in a building, facing insurmountable odds, relying on each other to get through – is pure Rio Bravo.

Assault On Precinct 13 (named by studio executives who hadn’t noticed that the action took place in Precinct 9) is a great pastiche film, made by a director who obviously loves the original movies and has updated and incorporated the original elements with care. This trick was repeated again, with exactly the same source material, in Florent-Emilio Siri’s 2002 French film, The Nest. 

Made with real panache, The Nest follows three police officers who are transporting the head of an Albanian mafia family to a high-profile trial in Strasbourg. Simultaneously, a likeable group of thieves are planning to rob a warehouse. When the police convoy is attacked, both cops and robbers (along with two security guards) are trapped in the warehouse, with a long night ahead of them.

The Nest brilliantly references a number of films. There are elements of Platoon and Reservoir Dogs in there. The laconic security guard has a strong cowboy element, and the team of thieves hum the theme tune to The Magnificent Seven to themselves. It channels the spirit of Rio Bravo but also incorporates the more bloody elements of Assault On Precinct 13, including the murder of a child. It’s also impossible to watch it and not think of James Cameron’s Aliens – I don’t want to ruin the fun of spotting these moments, but I have to mention the great female character who bears a remarkable resemblance to Vasquez.

The homage to so many great films doesn’t mean this is a mash-up without its own style. The Nest may have a slow build-up at times but once we get in the warehouse, it’s an excellent thriller that incorporates a European setting very successfully, and involves us fully in the action.

And so Rio Bravo rides again, continuing to appear in modern movies, influencing the work of a new generation of filmmakers, and I’m always glad to spot it, in such films as Attack the Block, Natural Born Killers, and From Dusk Till Dawn. It remains one of my favourite Westerns, and Hawks one of my favourite directors. He had a gift for knowing what made a film memorable. It certainly worked with Rio Bravo.

Ad – content continues below