The Great Scenes: The Opening of RIO BRAVO

The Movie: Rio Bravo

Spoiler Level: Low

The Setup: Howard Hawks once said that “a good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones.” Hawks knew pace and plotting, and his films rarely feature any fat or flourish.

Rio Bravo might be Hawks’ most well-regarded Western, alongside the sprawling Red River. Hollywood lore suggests that Hawks and star John Wayne constructed the film as an answer to the politics of Fred Zinneman and Gary Cooper’s High Noon, in which a sheriff is abandoned by his community in the face of a gang invasion. Rio Bravo presents a world with a much stronger communal bond, and illustrates that theme from the get-go.

After the opening title card and credits, we’re thrust right into the action at 01:27 in this clip, as Dead Martin’s Dude stumbles into a crowded saloon. The scene continues to 05:23. (Please excuse the improper aspect ratio.)

Why It’s Great: With almost zero dialogue, Hawks and screenwriters Jules Ferthman & Leigh Brackett paint a vivid picture of the story’s inciting incident. Thanks to a staggeringly vulnerable performance from crooner Dean Martin, it’s clear that his Dude is sinking to a new low in his battle with alcoholism, letting himself be toyed with by villain Joe Burdette (slimy Claude Akins). Enter John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance, who attempts to intervene… to surprising results. The segment ends in a second saloon, wrapping up the opening adventure and setting the stage for the rest of the film: a tense, pressure-cooker of a story in which an army of bad guys plans to descend on the stronghold created by Sheriff Chance, with his diverse and growing family unit.

I’d really hate to spoil any more of the plot, and really, the opening scene is so amazingly clear that there’s not much else to discuss. Do, however, take a good look and witness how efficiently Hawks covers and edits these few scenes, and how he protects the presence of Wayne’s hero, who always affects the action before he appears in it. Everything here is defined by action and blocking, and each cut brings a drastic change and a new piece of information.

If you’ve never seen Rio Bravo, hopefully the opening of the film will be all it takes to convince you to go pick up the recently released blu-ray. It’s a must-watch for fans of John Wayne, westerns, Howard Hawks, or even great musical numbers. Don’t miss this classic from Martin and The Colorado Kid himself, Ricky Nelson.

“The sun is sinking in the west…”