Thursday, 24 September 2015

The decline of the western genre (part 2)

Now where were we, ah yes those three Howard Hawks films that mark the decline of the western genre. It might not be a surprise to a student of the genre that they're the films that comprise the Spanish trilogy, so called because the titles are in Spanish. They are: Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970). The two latter films have been called remakes of the first and while there is a case for that assertion with El Dorado, it's just not the case with Rio Lobo, yes it is derivative but it's structure is much more meandering and the features that make Rio Bravo so memorable, are mostly non existent or maybe they were just executed so badly, as to be totally ineffectual.

Rio Bravo is so good, it's probably one of the best American films ever and it succeeds because it combines the mythical elements of the western genre with tightly observed characterisation and performances from the lead roles. Remember I'm making a case for the western as a fantasy genre and fantasy works best when it imposes its own limitations. Those limitations are what became the conventions of the western narrative form. Conventions that had little foundation in reality, every gun slinger is armed with an 1873 colt revolver, is an accomplished horseman, can shoot the eye out of sparrow at thirty paces and take a punch that would fell a tree with no shattered bones and only the occasional loose tooth. There are, however, rules that limit the extent of possibility in this fictional world and reel in the suspension of disbelief from an audience. That's where Rio Bravo succeeds it paints fallible characters, struggling with the consequences of their circumstance, faltering and even failing on occasion but perusing their personal narrative to its conclusion.

The role that most personifies this, is that of Dude played by Dean Martin. Dude's character utilises a rarely seen device within narrative, he's not the protagonist but he's the character whose journey is rendered most completely. Chance, Waynes character and the protagonist, undergoes a somewhat more subtle transformation, that  serves in part as counterpoint to Dude. The other two prominent male characters are also interesting, Colorado, played by Ricky Nelson, is the inverse of a his stereotype, a young male subordinate character who is neither petulant nor unnecessarily aggressive but deliberate and possessed of insight beyond the scope expected of his age. Stumpy, Walther Brennan, is the character that most closely follows his type but he's not relegated to the usual purpose of light relief. The antagonist of the plot Nathan Burdette, is rarely seen, instead his malevolence is conveyed nebulously by the actions and the fate of his subordinates and by the serenade of El Deguello, that he orders played throughout the internment of his brother and his captors in the town jail. Of course there is a romantic interest in the narrative, it's required because heroes like Chance can't be driven by self interest there needs to be something else at stake. Feathers is played by Angie Dickenson and embodies what Chance places risk through his actions, the promise of their life together beyond the immediate narrative.

The narrative concludes with an action sequence, a shoot out at a warehouse which inverts the circumstances of the main characters earlier in the narrative. The bad guys still outnumber our heroes but now it's the them who're isolated in a building with a hostage.

I went into a bit more detail about Rio Bravo than is really required, but hey this just a blog post, so there's no editor to placate. So the clock runs forward to 1966 and El Dorado hits the screens, a lot of things have changed in seven years. The space race is on and the 60's are swinging with free love, we're not quite into flower power yet but there is a discernible difference in the way that El Dorado reflects its contemporary origin. Despite an excellent performance from Robert Mitchum it's a pale film in comparison to Rio Bravo. There are some lapses in on screen continuity that betray problems with Wayne's health in production and it can be speculated that the injury his character acquires is something written into the script. The physicality that made Wayne such an effective protagonist and potent on screen presence, is much reduced. This is the moment in his career where he starts to fall back on his sissy walk and similar such mannerisms to evoke the memory of his former glory. If you watched only films made after El Dorado to assess Wayne's career, you'd wonder what the fuss was about and it's probably the lingering aspect of his career that damaged the reputation of one of the finest on screen actors in the eyes of younger audiences. It's this reliance on past achievement that epitomises the flaws in El Dorado, it's not a particularly bad film. it's just not that great and the cheese is starting to outweigh the beef. El Dorado also suffers from some mismanaged attempts to update the genre, make it relevant to a younger audience and it's this trend that will play a significant role in the next film.

Then we get to Rio Lobo, well if a lot happened between 59 and 66 then the world must've turned on it's head in the next four years because what Rio Lobo is, is a pile of poop. The attempts to appeal to a younger audience is so clawing and ill conceived that there's a character portrayed with a sixties mop top. There's also much studio interference evident, extraneous prominent female roles just pop up with no rhyme or reason, the fact that one of the actress became a prominent executive within the film industry, might offer a clue as to why. If El Dorado rode on the back of fond memories then Rio Lobo casts them to wind in a desperate search for a new audience. Trying to appeal to a new audience is not a sin in itself, to be sure it's the life blood of cinema or any entertainment but those who were trying to achieve this, were so remote from that audience, that their attempts are laughable. Rio Lobo's worst failure though is that the fantasy of the wild west is extinct within its narrative, they tried so hard to be trendy that what they ended up with was so preoccupied with relevance to its intended audience they forgot what the genre was about. What that would be, is the western fantasy, complete with core conventions intact, what we get instead with Rio Lobo, is a series a tableaux,  constructed for the convenience of character types inserted into the narrative, it's all very depressing and totally ineffectual as drama.

When  you get a chance, make a comparison between Rio Lobo and the contemporary spaghetti western scene. Sure the spaghetti westerns are not all great, some of 'em are not even watchable and they are a little iconoclastic in regard to some extraneous conventions of the western genre but they what they do well, when the succeed, is convey small narratives on a large stage. That's essentially what a genre work does, encapsulate the nuance and triviality of real life and project into a fantasy context. That's why the western and the science fiction/fantasy genre are essentially equivalent.


  1. Supposedly, Rio Bravo was made as a rebuttal to High Noon, although Gary Wills, in his book John Wayne's America, seemed skeptical.

    I actually enjoyed all three films in the Spanish trilogy, although Rio Bravo is the only one that I might recommend to someone who was not a fan of Westerns in general or of Wayne in particular. In his later years, Wayne seemed to make more and more movies that were strictly for his fans, while Clint Eastwood seemed to be trying to branch out, and to appeal to the critics.

    Wayne's declining health probably did affect his performances. After his surgery to remove a cancerous lung in the early 1960's, he suffered severe shortness of breath, and action scenes must have been rough going.

    Critic Terry Kay, in a review of Rio Lobo, noted the dichotomy. He said that half the cast, including Wayne and Jack Elam, were playing the traditional "aw, shucks" style, while the younger ones were acting as if they were at a hippie love-in or a protest march.

    1. Rio Bravo is just such an awesome flick that its legacy was bound to have spawned an appetite for the same thing again. Those days though, they hadn't discovered the trick of adding roman numerals to a title: Rio Bravo II (Burdett's revenge), that's how it would be done today.

      It seems to me that Terry Kay has encapsulated Rio Lobo precisely with his observation.