Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
I’m not an artist, especially where movies are concerned. When I think back to the movies I’ve enjoyed over the years, I suppose you could opine that my preferences are decidedly chauvinistic; perhaps even traditional. And where my favorite actor is concerned, there’s only one that stands out.
John Wayne was more than an actor. He was an American archetype; a symbol, if you will, of what we were in the eyes of the world. For men, especially adolescent boys, he had that commanding presence we all secretly desire; the ability to silence a room simply by entering it. Many say he lacked the depth of Jimmy Stewart, or the savoir-faire of Clark Gable. But to this day, when I surf the satellite and run across one of his movies, that choice takes precedence over everything else.
People complain that Wayne’s characters were all cut from the same bolt of cloth, so similar in personality, presence, and portrayal. I don’t think that’s necessarily so. His Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” was unique, as was his role as Sergeant Striker in “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” Wayne once explained the genesis for his characters. In his young days as a strong-backed set worker on the early westerns, he met the legendary Wyatt Earp, who was working as a consultant to the directors. Wayne was deeply impressed by Earp, saying later that every character he ever created on screen was a reflection of the old lawman.
But even the bias I have for John Wayne doesn’t explain my inexplicable affection for one of the worst movies he ever made, “Rio Lobo.”
The plot was predictable, one of three very similar movies made by the legendary Howard Hawks. “Rio Bravo,” El Dorado,” and “Rio Lobo” all have nearly identical plot lines, a town beset by a crooked rich man who hires a corrupt sheriff and extorts his way into ownership of all the valuable land in the area.
This is a plot played out ad nauseum in a hundred different westerns. The level of acting, particularly by Jennifer O’Neil and Mexican actor Jorge Rivero, barely escapes the level of a high school drama club. The picture is saved from disaster by the giant presence of Wayne, and Jack Elam, who enjoyably plays a feisty local rancher.
One of the hallmarks of a John Wayne flick are the abundance of what I call “John Wayne-isms,” those classic lines of dialogue that only he could pull off. Rio Lobo, for its many flaws, is chock-full of these gems.
In an early scene, Wayne re-unites with a couple of Confederate guerillas who had stolen an Army payroll that Wayne’s character was supposed to protect. He takes them to the obligatory saloon for the obligatory drink. In the ensuing conversation, the moral of warfare is explored. Wayne’s character tells the two that “a boy I watched grow up” was killed in their attack. The sergeant asks why he doesn’t hold that against them, Wayne says,
“Well, what you did was an act of war. But selling information? That’s treason; rotten treachery for money.”
Later on, he and a sheriff friend are involved in a shootout in another saloon. Rivero, playing the former Confederate captain, saves Wayne’s life by showing up in his underwear and shooting one of the bad guys who was about to ventilate Wayne’s very broad back. Rivero says to Wayne,
“I heard all the noise and somehow I knew it was you.”
Eventually, all three, Wayne, Rivero, and O’Neill, end up in the corrupted town of Rio Lobo. Searching for information by feigning a toothache, he has a confrontation with the crooked sheriff, who advises Wayne that after his tooth is attended to, “Why don’t you just amble on outta town.”
Later that same night, Wayne, Rivero, and Elam locate the evil moneybags behind the corruption. Wayne recognizes him as one of his Sergeant-Majors. The rich man is captured, after the obligatory gun/fist fight and is taken back to town. Wayne decides the best course of action is to “hole up in the Jail” and wait for the Cavalry to show up, dispatching Rivero to get them. In the process of running the crooked sheriff and his men out of the jail, the sheriff rumbles,
“I should’ve taken you this morning.”
“You shoulda tried.”
In the process of the movie, Rivero predictably falls for O’Neil, who predictably resists his advances, turning them into demeaning comedy sketches. At one point, O’Neil is left behind and Rivero is on his knee, kissing her hand. Wayne sees this and calls out, “Frenchy! You coming with us, or do you have something better in mind?”
Rivero, whose character is half French, half Mexican, gets on his horse and says, “You keep callin' me Frenchy. I’m half Mexican, you know.”
“Well, which half was kneelin’, and which half was kissin’ her hand?”
The climax of the movie is the traditional shoot-out and Wayne’s small band is rescued at the last minute by the townspeople who have found their courage, outflank the bad guys, and chase them out of town. The evil sheriff is gunned down, in the only surprise of the movie, not by Wayne, but by a local girl, played by Sherry Lansing, whose face he had slashed with a knife. This was one of two movies done by Ms. Lansing, who later on became the only female head of studio in Hollywood history. Which worked out for her, since she had no future as an actress.
Space won’t permit me to recall all these verbal gems, but trust me; the film is full of them.
Rio Lobo is, at best, a highly templated western, poorly acted and edited. But in many ways, we see John Wayne the way we expect. The strong savior with the sharp eye and keen intellect; an actor who can’t help but own every scene in which he appears. We see his towering strength, the trust he inspires, and the leadership he renders so effortlessly.
I don’t know very many men who didn’t at one time harbor the secret ambition to be the John Wayne of his world. And perhaps that’s why I still find his performances so compelling. There’s only one way to explain it.
It’s a man thing.