Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rio Lobo

This is a contribution to the Late Films Blogathon being hosted by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

Howard Hawks' final film, Rio Lobo, is an awkward, limping, but still often poignant and entertaining goodbye from the great director. It is the concluding chapter of his loose, self-plagiarizing trilogy of John Wayne Westerns, another film cast from the mold that produced the classics Rio Bravo and El Dorado. Like its predecessors, Rio Lobo centers on Wayne as a tough but good-natured man of principle, in this case the Union officer Cord McNally. McNally is looking for justice following an incident at the end of the Civil War when a Union traitor allowed a gold convoy to be hijacked by Confederate troops, with one of McNally's best friends dying in the attack. With the war over, McNally enters into an unlikely alliance with two former Confederates, the Mexican-French Cordona (Jorge Rivero, an exceptionally unlikely Confederate officer) and Tuscarora (Robert Mitchum's son Christopher, singularly lacking in his father's screen presence). This trio, eventually joined by the lovely drifter Shasta (Jennifer O'Neill) and Tuscarora's crotchety, cross-eyed old father Phillips (Jack Elam), set out to find McNally's justice while also resolving a battle over land rights in the town of Rio Lobo.

The film has all the ingredients of a classic Hawks adventure, taking a disarmingly offhand approach as the heroes rush headlong into danger. The script has the signature laidback feel of late Hawks, spiced with some mild banter and goofy humor, but something feels off about it all. A big problem is the casting, which is almost top-to-bottom awful. Hawks' other two late Wayne Westerns had been packed with supporting turns from Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson, and their ease and charm with the quick-witted scripts were crucial to the films. For Rio Lobo, Hawks pulled together a cast nearly as inexperienced and undistinguished as the young troupe he'd gathered for his equally clumsy racing picture Red Line 7000. Only experienced character actor Jack Elam is really fun to watch, in a campy, over-the-top role; the rest of the cast is simply lackluster. The usual Hawks charm occasionally shows through anyway, which is to say that one gets what he's going for, even if the actors can rarely pull it off. O'Neill has a certain appealingly matter-of-fact attitude that makes her laughing banter go down easy, but she has no depth, no feeling, and Hawks did her no favors by casting her in basically the same role, of the proud woman with a checkered past, that had previously been played with far more wit and pathos by Angie Dickinson.

But O'Neill at least makes an impression. Most of the rest of the cast is utterly unappealing. Hawks' great hangout Westerns had relied on a minimum of gunplay and a maximum of relaxed wordplay, and for that he'd needed actors who could be comfortable in their skins, and with one another, who could be captivating while simply lounging back in a chair and verbally sparring. He comes up empty here, and seems to know it. Even Wayne, who was near the end of his own career and ailing, seems ill-at-ease, and in any event his laconic manner can't compensate for the non-entities he's surrounded with. The actors can't shoulder all the blame, though, because the script is nearly as haphazard as the performances. There are some fun lines — asked why Cordona had taken Shasta's clothes off after she'd fainted, he replies that he and McNally flipped for it, and he won — but otherwise there's a whole lot of clunky exposition and banal dialogue. There's too much purely functional chatter, the kind of placeholder fluff that one suspects the Hawks of a few years earlier would've improvised or rewritten on the spot, but perhaps he didn't have the energy anymore.

In that respect the film is kind of sad, as though it bears the marks of Hawks' age, his inability to marshal all his tremendous talents the way he once had with such verve and wit. He'd live another seven years, but he wouldn't make another film. In many ways, the film is about saying goodbye, is about what it's like to be the man of action growing old. If one reads between the lines, Rio Lobo begins to seem like Wayne and Hawks, two old men at the ends of their careers, wondering what old age could possibly mean for men like them, men who had in many ways defined themselves by youth and virility and vigor. To see Wayne, old and sickly and bulkier than ever, struggling to mount a horse, is to know that Rio Lobo is a kind of farewell to the cowboy who'd grown old onscreen — it's a long way back from here to the young, surprisingly skinny gunslinger defining his iconic image in John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach.

One sees the difference in Wayne's relationship to the women, too. Wayne had never been the most comfortable actor in romantic situations, and Hawks had always gleefully taken advantage of that discomfort, making it the chink in the tough guy's armor, pushing him into situations where beautiful younger women could upstage him with their frankness and their beauty. In Rio Lobo, though, the duo finally acknowledge Wayne's unlikelihood as a romantic hero; he's now the aging father, uninterested in women and uninteresting to them. When Shasta throws in with McNally's group, Cordona immediately latches onto her, aggressively pursuing her, but she spends the night cuddled up next to McNally — not because she wants him, but because he's "comfortable," because he's not a sexual threat the way the fiery, passionate Cordona is. McNally laughs it off but the way he keeps bringing it up subtly underscores how much it stung, how much he took it as an insult. The tough guy, the gunslinger, the cowboy, has become sexually irrelevant, to the extent that this beautiful young woman doesn't even consider him in terms of sexuality. She thinks nothing of spending the night curled up next to him under a blanket because she obviously considers him sexless, safe, and one feels how much that must hurt McNally — and by extension, Wayne and especially Hawks, who always prized his ability to win the attention of far younger women.

Hawks' insecurity with this theme leads him, perhaps, to counterbalance it with a scene where Cordona, fleeing from the bad guys, stumbles into a young woman's house, where the topless Amelita (Sherry Lansing) waits, barely covering herself with her hands. The scene reads as racy and flirtatious — and it might've come across as funnier if the actors weren't so bland — but it's an obviously gratuitous display of T&A, a particularly blatant bit of pointless, seedy pandering. The moment is redeemed only slightly by the film's climax, in which Amelita, thirsty for revenge, proves her mettle as a tough Hawksian woman.

Still, this is a Hawks film, and if the casting and scripting aren't up to his normal standards, there are still pleasures to be had here. Perhaps to make up for the lack of compensating joys in the characterization, the film is much heavier on action than either Rio Bravo or El Dorado, and the action is well-staged and viscerally exciting. During the lengthy opening sequence, Confederate bandits rob a Union train using a string of contrivances — a nest of hornets, torches, grease, ropes strung across the tracks — that are ludicrously convoluted but play out great on screen. The robbery leads directly into a cleverly staged pursuit from the Union troops, with the troops splitting up at each fork, so that eventually McNally is riding through the center of a shallow stream all by himself, seeking out his prey. Later, the trio of McNally, Cordona and Phillips lead an assault on the ranch of their enemy Ketchum (Victor French), and Hawks' tense staging of their stealth dispatching of the ranch's bodyguards is impeccable.

But he has the most fun with the grand finale, after the ranch shootout. At one point, when McNally calls a huddle and tells his allies that they're going to hole up in a jail, it's a kind of metafictional wink: he might as well have turned to his friends and said, "hey, did you ever see Rio Bravo or El Dorado?" The actual jail hangout sequence is pretty short, but Hawks quickly follows it up with a re-enactment of the prisoner exchange and shootout with which he ended Rio Bravo. This time, though, it's the bad guys who think to throw dynamite into McNally's position, along with other subtle variations that show Hawks having fun recycling old plots and old situations. The film is frequently clunky and awkward, but it's also often charming, exciting and, in its examination of the aging Western archetype — and the aging filmmaker behind the camera — surprisingly poignant.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Several years back I was at a parmount event and I had a chance to chat with then-studio-president Sherry Lansing about Rio Lobo She loved doing the film and was especially proud to have appeared on screen with John Wayne in its last shot.

Ed Howard said...

Nice! Yeah, she seemed to be having fun, for sure.

Richard Bellamy said...

This is not the greatest John Wayner, but there are elements to enjoy. I agree - I enjoy Jack Elam, the prisoner exchange - and the other recycled Hawksian moments.

Asher said...

This is entirely off-topic, but I'm curious - I was reading your old posts on the Boetticher-Scott Westerns, and I wondered why you didn't write anything about Seven Men From Now, possibly the best of all of them.

Ed Howard said...

Hokahey, yeah, there's plenty to enjoy here despite its flaws.

Tray, Seven Men From Now was the first Boetticher I ever saw, long before I started this blog. I'd disagree it's his strongest, I enjoy several others, like Ride Lonesome, much more, though like all his Westerns Seven Men is also quite good. I should revisit and write about it someday.