Rio Lobo, the final movie by seasoned and celebrated director Howard Hawks, is more of a lazy stroll into the sunset than a blazing shoot-out at the OK Corral. This was also the third – arguably unnecessary – Howard Hawks film varying the idea of a sheriff defending his office against belligerent outlaw elements in the town, after Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), both starring John Wayne.
Spoiler alert: both are far superior.
Howard Hawk’s Rio Lobo wrangles all the typical Western tropes, most of which should have well-pastured by 1970. John Wayne’s affable charisma saves the town. And the movie.
The story is fun, albeit lopsided. Co-written by Leigh Brackett, who previously worked with Hawks and Wayne, was also known as the “Queen of the Space Opera.”
Trivia time: Brackett’s final screenplay before her death in 1978? The initial treatment for The Empire Strikes Back.
Hawks reportedly had multiple rewrites occurring throughout filming.
And it shows.
The Duke plays Yankee Colonel Cord McNally. Set before the denouement of the Civil War, McNally tracks down gold thieving Rebs, led by hunky Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge “Hunky” Riveiro). McNally is captured but never surrenders. Never capitulates. This is the Duke after all and he plays the role with a hammy smile as tempered as his Stetson. He remains in control at all times regardless of outside forces.
When he escapes, because of course he does, and as the war ends, he befriends Cordona. The two travel to Texas looking for the man who hired Cordona for the gold hit. Once in town, Cordona falls for kinda-sorta damsel-in-distress Shasta Delaney (Jennifer O’ Neill). She conveniently provides a lead taking them to the fated Rio Lobo. There, with the help of old drunk Phillips (Jack Elam), they get a line on a man called Ketcham (Victor French) who is running the town with the sheriff (Mike Henry) on his payroll.
The finale? The kind of shoot-out kids of day who worshipped the Duke dreamed about and recreated multiple times in the back yards and back alleys of late-century America.
For 21st century hombres used to high-end, single-shot choreography?
Heroes fight the villains. Bullets come a’flying. The final act is sealed with a kiss and a knowing smile. This is a John Wayne Western after all. But that killer train robbery scene set smack in the middle of the movie’s first act? That piece is the true action sequence for the movie making the shoot-out ending as mundane as it is cliche.
Taken with the wide-eyed wonder of a John Wayne fan, Rio Lobo is fun, semi-nostalgic nod to the higher-end genre flicks that Hawks, and John Ford before him, made throughout the 50s and 60s. Duke plays his role with a slight wink and heavy charm relying on reputation alone. He is neither the hero on a journey, nor the romantic lead. Nor does he play a true mentor to Cordona, the character who does fulfill those roles. McNally is almost an impartial witness to all events stepping in with parental guidance when required.
A critical review is not as gentle. The story is highly fragmented jumping from a train heist to a chase to the vanquishing of a contrived baddie. The characters are mostly reactive as the ever-changing story plays around them as if they were pieces on a chess board of the gods, picked up from one locale and dropped into a completely different territory.
The train robbery segment is the highlight of the film and certainly its most remembered scene. The coordination and sophistication of the set-up, implementation, and eventual escape belies the simplicity of the script moving forward. Modern-day viewers might spot the inspiration Sam Raimi no doubt took from this film when filming the spectacular runaway subway scene in Spider-Man 2.
Similar to Duke playing McNally, Rio Lobo relies on charm alone. The stunt work is fun, all three female leads are gorgeous, and Jerry Goldsmith’s outstanding score breaks the Western mold as it strives for a unique sound.
In 1970, with America doing its best to forget the Vietnam War, goofy Westerns like Rio Lobo were made with the hope of escapism. Hollywood was shifting too. Family entertainment was relegated to Sunday night’s The Wonderful World of Disney. The Duke himself would only star in a half-dozen films himself until his last gunfight in the most spectacular of fashions by way of The Shootist.
Rio Lobo was a last hurrah for Hawks. The movie should have been granted an Alamo-sized salute. Instead, the Duke winked. Smiled silently. And limped away.