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Reviewed by:
  • Rio Bravo
  • Scott Bukatman (bio)
Rio Bravo by Robin Wood. British Film Institute2003. $14.95 paper; 96 pages

The films of Howard Hawks have generated extraordinary writing over the years: Manny Farber, Robin Wood, Gerald Mast, Peter Wollen, Molly Haskell, Laura Mulvey, David Thomson, and various Cahiers du Cinéma writers have all contributed to this spectacular body of critical writing. What is it about Hawks that inspires such excellence? Perhaps the answer lies, in part, in the way Hawks's films prove resistant to numerous modes of film analysis: there are motifs, but no symbols; performances, but no mythic archetypes (or, rather, they create their own mythic archetypes); physicality, but little découpage; and, from the 1940s onward, little in the way of visual pyrotechnics. They dispense with the grand flourishes of an embodying camera or the rapid velocities of the movement-image. Nothing lurks in the shadows; there are no mysteries to be solved. The best way to get at a Hawks film is, really, to describe it, and to allow the sensibility of the film and its filmmaker to percolate through the prose. There is also the terse economy of the films themselves, which mitigates against critical bloviating. To write of Hawks's films is to be an initiate, an intimate, a member of the clan, part of the group. One need not be an Hitchcockian to write well about Hitchcock, but one does need to be a Hawksian to do a Hawks film any kind of justice. Robin Wood's exemplary analysis of Rio Bravo (1959) for the British Film Institute Film Classics series does full justice to this most "joyful" of films through an extended close reading in perfect sympathy with its object.

Rio Bravo is a surprisingly difficult text to teach or write about: while it is easy to enjoy, it is resistant to all post-auteurist film theory. Wood takes a defiantly auteurist stance, which is perhaps not quite as radical as he imagines: film studies has, I think, circled back toward a more generous understanding of the auteur as something other than the structural trope that Peter Wollen once described, as a rather more self-aware individual working within particular institutional parameters (see, [End Page 166] for example, Joe McElhaney's recent The Death of Hollywood Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minnelli).1 But while Wood performs an exemplary auteurist reading that situates Rio Bravo within the Hawksian oeuvre, he is primarily concerned with the specifics of the individual films, and in particular this one: the "realization" matters as much, if not more, than the grandly unifying themes that define Hawks's preoccupations. "The film," he writes, "consists of images within which actors move, gesture, talk, and what is crucial is the precise way in which they do these things, the precise movements, the precise inflections."2 Wood's emphasis is exactly right: there is arguably no other useful way to approach Rio Bravo.

Thus, while Rio Bravo is placed as the last film of a trilogy that is preceded by Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1944), it is more than just a restatement of the thematics of the earlier works. In each of these films, an isolated group of men exists, their actions centered around a combination saloon/office/hotel and concerned with issues of bravery and competence. Into each of these settings, a woman enters who not only proves "good enough" to win the respect and acceptance of the group, but who also breaks down the resistance of the emotionally closed protagonist. But, as Wood notes, "Hawks repeats himself without ever quite repeating himself."3 Thus, "You can't fully understand Rio Bravo unless you have also understood Only Angels Have Wings,"4 because by the time of Rio Bravo, the existential preoccupations of Hawks's world, while indisputably present, are extraordinarily understated. Wood recognizes the ways in which Rio Bravo is a film about aging, community, regard, redemption, interdependence, and family, while hardly seeming to be about anything at all. To appreciate Rio Bravo, as Wood does, is to understand the different sexual presences embodied by Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne...


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