Rio Bravo: Masculinism and the Ubermensch

Note: This Essay contains spoilers for the films Rio Bravo and High Noon. Read at your own risk.

Rio Bravo is a John Wayne film. That fact sums up quite a bit about the movie. John Wayne represents traditional masculinity, “toughness” and “honor”. I hate John Wayne. I find him personally repulsive. He was a man who eagerly sought to persecute people for believing in equality and justice. In addition to vocally supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee, Wayne also created propaganda for the racist, imperialist Vietnam War.

Furthermore, Wayne himself was a virulent racist. He resented black people getting “undeserved” opportunities.

“I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

Wayne also glorified on numerous occasions, and defended, the genocide of America’s native peoples.

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them if that’s what you’re asking. Our so called stealing of this country was just a question of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

I’m not going to spend time rebutting those statements that John Wayne made. If you think they have any validity to them you aren’t going to agree with much of what I have to say and you are probably also a racist.

John Wayne’s personal beliefs, as disgusting as they are, aren’t the sum of why I detest him. Even beyond his own views, the persona that he fostered and the symbol that he served and continues to serve as are quite repellant. The masculinity that John Wayne represents is regressive, repressive, misogynistic and altogether abhorrent. The John Wayne persona is one that is a rough, abusive, powerful man who is better than everyone else and keeps women in their place. It’s one of jingoism and imperialism. I speak not necessarily of the roles Wayne played in his films, but more of the role that Wayne played culturally.

Now there is a point to this digression regarding John Wayne as a person and as a cultural figure. That is because Rio Bravo is a John Wayne film. Not just a John Wayne film, but a John Wayne Film. Wayne does not just play a role, but he plays a John Wayne Role. John Wayne plays John T. Chance the lawman. Chance is above it all. Beyond the petty personal squabbles of his deputies. He finds romance with a woman, played by Angie Dickinson, but the romance almost happens upon him. He doesn’t provide anything to her, she simply falls for him because he’s there. The woman isn’t even given the dignity of a proper name, simply being known as Feathers.

For what it’s worth, most of the other supporting players aren’t given full names either being known as Stumpy, Dude and Colorado Ryan. The fact that Chance is given a full name while his friends are not further elevates Chance above his peers. The only other characters given full names are the villains (primarily because the two main villains are brothers), a friend of Chance’s who is murdered early on and a sympathetic innkeeper and his wife. Interestingly enough the innkeeper and his wife were both played by Hispanic actors, although in roles that mainly served as comic relief.

It must be mentioned at some point that Rio Bravo is a response to High Noon. High Noon of course, is a film about a lawman who’s resigning to marry a pacifist Quaker woman, when he is informed of an outlaw he had run in and his gang seeking revenge. The sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, finds the people of his town unwilling to back him up out of fear of the gang. Eventually he must face them down on his own until his fiancee, played by Grace Kelly, comes to support him and save his skin when he needs it, forsaking her own religious beliefs.

The contrast between Rio Bravo and High Noon is an important one. It helps to underscore Rio Bravo‘s failings. In many ways Rio Bravo is a great film. It’s masterfully shot by Howard Hawks, particularly the opening sequence without any dialogue. From a technical standpoint, and ignoring what Rio Bravo says socially and politically, Rio Bravo is a masterpiece. The performances range from outstanding (Dean Martin as Dude) to surprisingly competent (Ricky Nelson as Colorado). The weakest point of the movie by far takes place during a lull in the action when Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan (as the rather crudely named Stumpy) decide to do some singing. It seems probable that the sequence was included purely to increase the box office take by having Nelson and Martin singing. As far as the quality of the movie itself goes, the scene is pure garbage and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Back to the comparison with High Noon, High Noon is a movie in which a sheriff desperately seeks help in overcoming a foe which outnumbers him and seeks nothing but revenge. In Rio Bravo we witness a sheriff who has people falling over themselves to help him but whose help he rejects – until they end up helping him anyway when he welcomes it. In other words, nothing but masculine posturing, attempting to appear too tough to need any help. In many ways High Noon is reflective of the Red Scare – the writer was himself subject to the Hollywood Blacklist. The abandonment of Gary Cooper’s character represents the abandonment of those who were accused of being Communists by their so-called friends. It reflects how those who are in a position of comfort and security within an oppressive system do not fight or challenge that system for fear of being its next target for repression.

Rio Bravo on the other hand presents everyone who opposes John T. Chance as a mercenary, reflecting the Cold War idea that anyone who identified as a Communist or opposed the United States in any way was an agent of the Soviet Union. In addition to portraying the opposition as the result of coercion and manipulation, Rio Bravo also represents the opposition to Sheriff Chance as near limitless – a virtual army of double agents trying to kill him. Rio Bravo is very much a Cold War movie, and not in a good way. Whereas the existential threat to Gary Cooper is four men motivated by personal reasons, the existential threat to John Wayne is dozens of men motivated solely by monetary gain.

Rio Bravo does score some interesting points in casting a businessman as the villain. That villain being landowner Nathan Burdette, whose brother Joe was imprisoned by Sheriff Chance for killing an unarmed man. Somehow in this fantasy world the sheriff became sheriff without being friendly with the local land baron, but that’s something I’m willing to let slide in the name of suspension of disbelief. I suppose to a certain extent Sheriff Chance being beyond the influences of Burdette is another manifestation of his being an Ubermensch. I suspect however that any vilification of landowners or businessmen or anything of the sort was unintentional, to say the least.

Continuing with the comparison between Rio Bravo and High Noon, the two films’ depictions of women must be brought up. In High Noon, Grace Kelly’s character is an avowed pacifist who comes to Gary Cooper’s aid when it’s absolutely necessary. She also plays a key and very important role in Cooper’s showdown. She saves his life when he’s vulnerable. Later she herself gets taken captive by the main villain, although she does manage to fight him off so that Cooper is able to get a clean shot at him. Grace Kelly plays a strong woman. Strong enough to overcome her deeply held pacifist convictions when she needed to protect the man she loved.

On the other hand we have Angie Dickinson’s Feathers from Rio Bravo. Feathers is introduced to us as a wanted women, due to her connection with a known scam artist, with Chance erroneously suspecting her to be a card game cheat. Chance’s false accusation of Feathers is considered a non-issue with her showing of fealty to him due simply to his existence and without him providing her with any sort of reason for attraction or interest. Even beyond the romantic connection between Chance and Feathers, which happens just because he’s the male lead, she still compares poorly with Grace Kelly from High Noon.

Whereas Kelly was proactive, Dickinson as Feathers is anything but. Feathers stands guard over Chance while he’s sleeping – just because. She directly involves herself when Chance finds himself cornered by Burdette’s men, but only when directed to act by Colorado, and then her action consists of throwing a flower pot through a window to provide a diversion for Colorado to intervene. Afterwards Feathers is traumatized and only calms down when comforted by Chance. Presumably she was either unaware of or unwilling to admit that serving as a diversion in a gunfight would lead to people being killed. Kelly in High Noon was not only aware of the effect of her actions but was directly involved in violent acts. She knew what she was doing, approached her actions from a pacificist perspective and still did what she did.

As masterfully directed as Rio Bravo is, and as well executed as it is in other areas, the film still has some fatal flaws. Plot-wise it fails significantly in its romanticization of the John Wayne Role and the woman who falls for him for no particular reason. It’s idolatry and fetishistic hero worship in the extreme. John Wayne is elevated above the common man, in an exhibition of fascist aesthetics, and becomes the hero of the day.

In summation, Rio Bravo is a movie that is anti-communist, anti-feminist and pro-fascist to the extent that it’s repulsive and disgusting and reflects poorly on the legacy of John Wayne (to the extent that a positive legacy of John Wayne can exist) as well as the legacy of Howard Hawks, and Hollywood in general.

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