Wood’s Curious Call

Can you imagine being on your death bed, as legendary critic and essayist Robin Wood was recently, and being suddenly seized by an urge to name your top all-time films, and as a friend sits down by the bed with a pad and pen, you sit up slightly and say, for openers, “Top of the list…my all-time favorite…Rio Bravo.”

What is that? You’re about to leave the earth and meet the monolith and the greatest film you can think of is Rio Bravo? A zero-story-tension hangin’ movie that constantly subjects viewers to screechy-voiced Walter Brennan, and which features the very soft-spoken, adolescent-voiced Ricky Nelson singing a duet with Dean Martin?

If Wood is listening from his side of the cosmic fence, let me try explaining this one more time. (I explained it in full on 7.27.07.) Rio Bravo, which I’m moderately okay with, doesn’t hold a candle to High Noon, which is more or less the same film — about a lawman facing up to bad guys who will kill him if he doesn’t arrest or kill them first.

The reason is that High Noon is about facing very tough odds alone, and how you can’t finally trust anyone but yourself because most of your “friends” and neighbors will equivocate or desert you when the going gets tough. That’s reality, while Rio Bravo is a nice dream about standing up to evil with your flawed but loyal homies and nourishing their souls in the bargain — about doing what you can to help them become better men.

High Noon doesn’t need help. It’s about solitude, values…four o’clock in the morning courage. Whereas the action in Rio Bravo is basically about the homies pitching in to help an alcoholic (Dean Martin) get straight and reclaim his self-respect. And about Chance (John Wayne) working up the courage to tell Feathers (Angie Dickinson) that he loves and wants her.

We’d all like to have loyal supportive friends by our side, but honestly, which represents the more realistic view of human nature? The more admirable?

Wood chose Rio Bravo, I suspect, because he was facing the void and he wanted warmth in his heart — he wanted to feel closer to others and selected a film that has always made him feel this. He chose a community solidarity film over a solitary strength film.

111 thoughts on “Wood’s Curious Call

  1. Jeff, you’re going to fault Woods for picking Rio Bravo on his fricking deathbed, but at the same time, for the last week, you’ve been touting Avatar, which is a maudlin sci fi melodrama with a veneer of new agey, sanctimonious crap. I mean, how are you going to fault Rio Bravo after going crazy for Avatar? And don’t misunderstand. I vote on one issue: the environment. I am glad the eloi are going for this movie. i am glad the message is being spread. But as yet my politics have been unable to erode my taste. Avatar is not a movie that anyone who loves movies should take seriously. Has everyone lost their minds?

    But, uh, yeah, the 3d and cgi looked great.

  2. More of a travesty is that he put CODE UNKNOWN in his top ten. really? i could barely sit through that crap. Got screener of WHITE RIBBON to check out this weekend. Hopes it’s better than that tripe.

  3. Robin’s not the only one–I know David Thomson adores Howard Hawks and just loves RIo Bravo far more than High Noon. He’s got tributes to both in HYS…?, but the great words on Rio Bravo are in the Biographical Dictionary, where he talks about Rio Bravo as a great comedy conversation piece masquerading as a western thriller.

    I’d also argue that Rio Bravo’s probably been the more influential of the two movies. QT’s also been pretty upfront on how Rio Bravo influenced him. I think you see it in the conversational tone of his movies. You also see it in the buddy cop dynamic that’s evolved in the past 30 years or so–a lot of that is just pilfered from Rio Bravo.

    Come to think of it, its hard to imagine doing better as an entertainment than Rio Bravo. The cast absolutely kills it, Hawks had just enough plot to sustain the running time, and the finale is worth its weight in gold. I love both movies, but Robin was right–Rio Bravo’s the better movie, the one I’d much rather watch over and over again.

  4. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that HIGH NOON has better looking people in it, ie – old school classic beauty Grace Kelly. Plus, RIO BRAVO has Republican mascot Wayne.

    Not sure why Jeff is so surprised about this, Wood wrote a critical analysis about Hawks and many cinephiles hold BRAVO in high esteem.

  5. If this was a choice for ‘personal’ favorite of all time, as opposed to simply the ‘best’ movie, then it is a choice that Wood is entitled to make without any argument against. For example, while I don’t believe it to be the ‘best’ movie ever, my personal favorite is ‘Last of the Mohicans’ because of my love for the locale, (I’ve hiked many of the places in the NC mountains where is it was shot), Daniel Day being my favorite actor and Michael Mann being one of my favorite directors. Also, I was in a really good place in my life when I saw it for the first time. Wood may have chosen ‘Rio Bravo’ not because he believes it to be better than ‘High Noon’, but simply because it is a movie that’s initial viewing represents a time in his life that he holds in fond remembrance. But then again, he may actually believe it to be better than ‘High Noon’ and he is certainly entitled to that opinion!

  6. WTF are you talking about, Wells? For a certain generation of hardcore auteurist cinephiles, RIO BRAVO is practically 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I’m not sure if you were being facetious with this post. I didn’t even blink when I saw that sitting pretty at the top of Wood’s list.

    And for that same group, mentioning HIGH NOON in the same breath as RIO BRAVO would be akin to mentioning Guy Ritchie in the same breath as Alfred Hitchcock. Nothing to see here, folks, move on.

  7. Funny Jeff mentions the go-it-alone grit of Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON. Yeah, at the endhe goes it alone, but only after spending the first 90% of the movie running door-to-door trying to find townfolk who’ll take up arms with him. (Also, the go-it-alone thing wouldn’t have worked out so hot for him had Grace Kelly not taken up arms, but whatever.)

    If you believe the lore, it was actually Cooper’s arc in HIGH NOON that infuriated Wayne and Hawks and inspired them to make RIO BRAVO, which they saw as antidote to the former’s bullshit.

    To wit, Wayne on HIGH NOON:

    “What a piece of you-know-what that was. I think it was popular because of the music. Think about it this way. Here’s a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains, fightin’ off Indians and drought and wild animals in order to settle down and make themselves a homestead. And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”

  8. Not a surprise at all. Wood consistently listed “Rio bravo” as his favorite film for more than 30 years and once famously said that if he ever had to justify the Hollywood system, it was the film he’d name.. In fact, most of the films on his deathbed list were titles he’s named on previous 10-best lists. The only surprises were the omission of any Hitchcock and of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”, which made Wood’s “Sight and Sound” list several years ago.

  9. Fred Zinnemann was the essence of a workmanlike, generally uninspiring director. The only great thing about HIGH NOON is Katy Jurado.

    The sexually drenched comedy between Wayne and Angie Dickinson alone places it above HN.

  10. Robin Wood nearly died in 2002 and as he was being wheeled into surgery he was told he might not survive, he immediately thought of Howard Hawks and the way his heroes confront death (actually in Only Angels Have Wings” and potentially Rio Bravo “where only a minor sympathetic character gets killed”). In the preface to his book on Rio Bravo which he wrote a year later he recalled the moment and said he felt completely calm and liked to think he was smiling.

    If a film can do that for you when you believe you are on your deathbed then you cannot possibly ask anything else of cinema.

  11. HEAVEN’S GATE is one of the most misunderstood epics ever made. A triumph. Also, VZ’s cinematography was incredible on that pic. Woods is a hero. RIP, my good sir.

  12. I find it curious that you cited Wood as a huge influence below, and you now express befuddlement over his love of “Rio Bravo,” a film he always steadfastly admired, the one he said he would cite if he were asked to name one picture to justify the existence of Hollywood. This going all the way back to his first, groundbreaking book on Hawks.

    Wood’s admiration of “Heaven’s Gate” wasn’t as perverse as you seem to believe. There’s been quite a bit of reassessment of that film going on in certain critical circles. Other reviled pictures that Wood championed include Friedkin’s “Cruising” and Fleischer’s “Mandingo.”

  13. If by reassessment you mean in a downward direction. After all the BS artist vs studio suits at the release, HEAVEN’S GATE has rightfully been put in the “ambitious failures” file. Great to look at, but leave the sound off…

  14. @” And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”

    yeah, just like he did when he dodged WWII, the hypocrite SOB.

  15. Hammond gets it dead on. Rio Bravo may not be my favorite western, but I respect and admire it for all it has meant to film lovers. Thanks Pete!

  16. hiviper, spare us. Wayne was 35 when we entered the war. How was he more valuable, as an over the hill grunt or as the face of the war effort? I’m really not a fan, but that’s ridiculous.

  17. After many months of reading and coming to this site, I half to agree with Jeff that HIGH NOON kicks and spits and steps all over RIO BRAVO’s ass. Watching it on TCM a couple of weeks ago was the clincher.

    HIGH NOON is greatness because it isn’t really a western at all. It was obviously written by Carl Foreman as a blacklisting allegory, which Wayne would later contribute to running him out of town (something he never regreted). But it also speaks to a universal truth in all of us that resonates louder than anything in all of the 140 minutes in RIO BRAVO.

    Of course John Wayne hated it. He saw what it was, who it was talking about, looked around and had no choice BUT to hate it.

    Anyway, no one has said it better than Jef fdid here:

    “High Noon may be a preachy western, but it delivers a very eloquent, well-ordered and well-rooted sermon, and I will always stand by this film body and soul. Because of the Carl Foreman script, Gary Cooper, Hardy Kruger and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performances, the Dimitri Tiomkin score, because of what it is & what it does to you deep down, and because it kicks Rio Bravo’s sorry ass every time it is shown or seen with one hand tied.

    The bottom line is that there aren’t enough films in the world that say what High Noon says loud and clear, which is that average small-town people are mostly fair-weather sheep — decent and friendly as far as it goes, but scared silly when push comes to shove, the heat’s on and the chips are down. I love that High Noon isn’t a true “western” as much as a parable about individual heroism and community cowardice. I love that tin star being dropped into the dust. Yes!

    Say it again — most people are no damn good & lack the necessary backbone when a threat is hovering and their financial security may be threatened. If nothing else, may each and every person on the planet understand that in the end you have to depend on yourself and no one else to do the hard thing. Tell me of another film that conveys this basic reading of human nature with more clarity or force.”

  18. So you’re relying on Jeff as an expert witness when it comes to small town folk? Now that’s funny.

    Besides the fact that he’s once again put his foot in it (tell the airline passengers who defeated Al-Qaeda again yesterday that ordinary people lack the necessary backbone when a threat is hovering), I think Jeff is first of all reacting ideologically more than aesthetically– High Noon is about how we need a strongman, a government of the wise and better than us, to deal with dangers facing our proletariat selves, while Rio Bravo is about how the common folk can solve their own problems. High Noon’s incipient endorsement of leadership by the superior man’s iron fist, is exactly what I would hope Hawks and Wayne would despise, since they were democrats, not collectivists.

  19. HIGH NOON is my answer to another question, namely “Name a classic film you don’t get the love for.”

    RIO BRAVO is a romp, if ever I saw one. It’s a great deal of fun to watch and Walter Brennan is awesome in it.

  20. Yeah John Wayne was really a stand-up, do-it-yourself-guy for riding Carl Foreman out of town. What a valiant example of people rising up and taking things into their own hands that was.

  21. Chase, if you truly want to park your car at Casa Wells, I think you’ll find it ill-advised to start a moralizing streak when it comes to assessing the creative work of a perhaps less-than-lovely human being. (SEE ALSO: Polanski, Roman.)

    The fact of the matter is that regardless of whether or not Wayne went all Stalin on Foreman, Ronald’s reading of the two pictures’ respective world views is dead on and we’re not debating the relative merit of their makers, we’re debating the relative merits of the films, so mayhaps we should stick to the text?

    For my money, I’d much rather live in a world bunkered down with boozy Walter Brennan than insufferable Gary Cooper.

    And in parting, I wasn’t exactly joking earlier in this thread when I brought up Grace Kelly’s Deus ex Machina rescue of Cooper at the end of HIGH NOON. For a film that’s ostensibly hammering us for the majority of its running time with the idea that, “you have to depend on yourself and no one else to do the hard thing,” it certainly pulls a pretty sharp 180 in its final minutes. Yeah, Cooper got most of the way through his one-man stand alone, but in its final showdown, HIGH NOON seems to acknowledge the absurdity of its own word view, namely that our hero would’ve died a martyr, his job incomplete, were it not for the help of a Good Woman.

    The fact that Cooper receives that help at all strikes me as another point in RIO BRAVO’s favor.

  22. So you’re relying on Jeff as an expert witness when it comes to small town folk? Now that’s funny.

    Besides the fact that he’s once again put his foot in it (tell the airline passengers who defeated Al-Qaeda again yesterday that ordinary people lack the necessary backbone when a threat is hovering), I think Jeff is first of all reacting ideologically more than aesthetically– High Noon is about how we need a strongman, a government of the wise and better than us, to deal with dangers facing our proletariat selves, while Rio Bravo is about how the common folk can solve their own problems. High Noon’s incipient endorsement of leadership by the superior man’s iron fist, is exactly what I would hope Hawks and Wayne would despise, since they were democrats, not collectivists.

  23. RIO BRAVO was made because I didn’t like a picture called HIGH NOON. I saw HIGH NOON at about the same time I saw another western picture, and we were talking about western pictures, and they asked me if I liked it, and I said, “Not particularly.” I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff. I said that a good sheriff would turn around and say, “How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they’ve got?” The fellow would probably say no, and he’d say, “Well, then I’d just have to take care of you.” And that scene was in RIO BRAVO. Then I said I saw another picture where the sheriff caught a prisoner, and the prisoner taunted him and made him perspire and worry and everything by saying, “Wait till my friends catch up with you.” And I said, “That’s a lot of nonsense, the sheriff would say, ‘You better hope your friends DON’T catch up with you, ’cause you’ll be the first man to die.’” While we were doing all this, they said, “Why don’t you make a picture the other way?” And I said, “OK,” and we made RIO BRAVO the exact opposite from HIGH NOON and this other picture, I think it was called 3:10 TO YUMA.

    – Howard Hawks in Joseph McBride’s interview book HAWKS ON HAWKS

  24. Interesting, I never heard that about 3:10 to Yuma though it certainly shares the same “lone sheriff” thing (although I find it quite a bit more convincing in 3:10 to Yuma; the problem really doesn’t belong to those particular people, their refusing to get killed for it is quite a bit more understandable).

  25. Saw Rio Bravo when it was new and at least ten times since, including the Blu ray recently. It’s deeply flawed but lots of fun. I have friends who consider Angie the most desirable star ever because of this film. High Noon is a pretentious bore, sociology posing as western. El Dorado, though, I’ve never found remotely watchable.

    My deathbed Hawks choices would be Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and The Big Sleep.

  26. c’mon Burma, spare me the BS. He was a typical hypocrite Republican patriotic bullshitter, later a rapid Nixon supporter. Real actor patriots like Jimmy Stewart (same age) and Capra enlisted. Here, I’ll paste a little info from Wikipedia for you:

    “As the majority of male leads left Hollywood to serve overseas, John Wayne saw his just-blossoming stardom at risk. Despite enormous pressure from his inner circle of friends, he put off enlisting. Wayne was exempted from service due to his age (34 at the time of Pearl Harbor) and family status, classified as 3-A (family deferment). Wayne’s secretary recalled making inquiries of military officials on behalf of his interest in enlisting, “but he never really followed up on them.” He repeatedly wrote to John Ford, asking to be placed in Ford’s military unit, but continually postponed it until “after he finished one more film.” Republic Studios was emphatically resistant to losing Wayne, especially after the loss of Gene Autry to the Army.”

    And how many soldiers do you think we have in Iraq and Afgan right now that are 34 and older? I would guess quite a few.

  27. Interesting, I never heard that about 3:10 to Yuma though it certainly shares the same “lone sheriff” thing (although I find it quite a bit more convincing in 3:10 to Yuma; the problem really doesn’t belong to those particular people, their refusing to get killed for it is quite a bit more understandable).

  28. “Yeah, Cooper got most of the way through his one-man stand alone, but in its final showdown, HIGH NOON seems to acknowledge the absurdity of its own word view, namely that our hero would’ve died a martyr, his job incomplete, were it not for the help of a Good Woman.”

    I don’t think the worldview ‘High Noon’ expresses is that you have to get through everything alone. I think the worldview it expresses is that even if you are standing alone, even if you are going to lose, there are fights that you have to fight. If the whole movie is meant to express that he *should* be fighting alone, then why would he spend the whole movie trying to get people to fight with him?

  29. “If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”

    Interesting; so, after pissing off three killers, and then spending years drawing salary as a town marshall for doing very little work (after the initial period when he tamed the town), at the first sign of actual trouble, John Wayne would ask everybody in town to help him do the job they’d been paying him for all those years and, if they didn’t, he’d leave them alone to be killed by three men who will then track him down and kill him at a time when he doesn’t expect it? This is all to avoid dealing with them when he knows precisely where they are and at what time?

    Man, John Wayne was one ahead of his time Republican.

  30. In John Wayne’s America, Garry Wills goes into considerable detail about Wayne’s refusal to serve. In the excellent Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne, Ronald Davis makes a weak case for Wayne’s attempts to join up.

    And where was Stallone, by the way, during Vietnam?

  31. Wood’s critique of Heaven’s Gate in “Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan” will make you a believer. Or, at least, make you wish you were a believer.

  32. “And where was Stallone, by the way, during Vietnam?”

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I always got the sense from the ‘Rambo’ sequels that Stallone was more just cashing in on what the audience wanted (or what he felt they wanted). I don’t think ‘First Blood’ is pro-Vietnam in anyway.

  33. Choosing a Fred Zinnemann western over Hawks??? Thanks, Jeff, your idiocy has kept my friends and me laughing for days. How does it feel to make John Wayne sound like an intellectual in comparison to you.

    As for the great Robin Wood’s list, well I can certainly do without Code inconnu and anything by Kurosawa, but everything else is in my own Top 25. Bet you’ve never seen the magnificent Make Way For Tomorrow. Judging from what I’ve read on your blog, you’ve probably never even heard of it.

    God bless.

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  42. QT’s also been pretty upfront on how Rio Bravo influenced him. I think you see it in the conversational tone of his movies. You also see it in the buddy cop dynamic that’s evolved in the past 30 years or so–a lot of that is just pilfered from Rio Bravo.

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