For Two Songs in a Row: Some Notes on the Profundity of Rio Bravo

illustration by Marc Aspinall

What is it about Rio Bravo (1959)? What elevates this film from the ranks of other ’50s Westerns to the status of classic—ranked (if we care about such things) the eighth greatest Western of all time by Vulture and Newsweek, third greatest by Slant magazine, and awarded the status of Great Movie by Roger Ebert, who described it as “a masterpiece,” evidence of “a master craftsman at work”?

For my money, it’s the two songs. Any movie might take time for a single musical interlude, but two in a row? What an indulgence, what a flagrant arson of screen time. 

Of course, this is a Howard Hawks Western.

In Rio Bravo, we meet the following heroes, in order of appearance:

Dude (Dean Martin), drunken former sheriff’s deputy, found at his lowest ebb as he prepares to fish drinking money out of a spitoon.

Chance (John Wayne), noble sheriff, who kicks that spitoon away in an effort to save Dude from himself.

Colorado (Ricky Nelson, impossibly beautiful), a hired gun who rides into town looking for no trouble but gets swept up in some anyway.

Stumpy (Walter Brennan), who minds the jailhouse for Chance.

Feathers (Angie Dickinson, somehow as beautiful as Ricky Nelson), the widow of a card cheat, now on the run and taking a shine to Chance.

As film historian David Bordwell points out in his essay “The Tao of Rio Bravo,” these characters (“the figures of light in the sacred text”) do not have typical names. “In this text,” Bordwell writes, “the mystery of naming opens on to the Mystery of Being.” Bordwell’s language is profound, but it’s true enough that this is no ordinary film. This is one in tune with what we live for—two songs in a row. But we’ll get to that; this is a film with time for everything. 

At around 140 minutes, Rio Bravo has time for Carlos (Pedros Gonzalez Gonzalez) the hotelier’s amorous intentions with his wife, Consuela (Estelita Rodriguez), a flourish that will pay off when Consuela is kidnapped in the third act. It has time for Feathers herself, who exists entirely apart from the main action and rarely intersects with the matters of life and death taking place out on the street. As the story goes, Hawks and Wayne saw their film as a rebuttal to High Noon (1952), and if that film is tight and lean, told in real time, Rio Bravo is loose and shaggy, told in a sort of vague no time—do its events take place over a weekend? A week? The story drifts from day to night, the forces of villainous Nathan Burdette (John Russell) always mounting up, forever on the horizon, but seldom seen.

In High Noon, the threat is kept similarly hidden: a recently freed outlaw is headed to town on the noon train, and poor marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has to try and rally a posse while the townsfolk turn their backs, leaving him to face certain death. This, according to Wayne and Hawks, was no plot for a Western, a lawman “running around town like a chicken with his head cut off” (as Hawks characterized Cooper), desperate for any help and finding none – “those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches,” Wayne grumbled to Roger Ebert years later. Cooper’s character, Wayne believed, should have just saddled up with his new bride and left the town to their own devices. Chance would be different, ”the exact opposite from High Noon,” the director said in the book Hawks on Hawks. Chance knows he put a target on his own back by arresting Burdette’s brother on charges of murder, but he turns down offers of aid. He refuses to lead inexperienced guns to the slaughter.

There’s something profound about this refusal. There’s something profound about this movie, though it’s difficult to say just what. Maybe we could find some answers in the short story it’s apparently based on, credited to someone named B.H. McCampbell? But no, that’s only a pseudonym for Hawks’s daughter Barbara, who contributed precisely one idea—the use of dynamite in the shootout—and never wrote a word. This was all Hawks went into his film with: dynamite and a chip on his shoulder. “Out of the things that I didn’t like in other Westerns … we made a pretty good story,” he reflected in Hawks on Hawks. So why should that story be so profound? Why, in his BFI Film Classics volume on the film, should English film critic Robin Wood suggest that “Rio Bravo remains…[an] argument as to why we should all want to go on living and fighting?” Wood’s sentiment is strong, but this film does seem to be a reminder of what’s worth living for: the love of a good woman, the trust of a good friend, two songs in a row.

As for those two songs: Burdette’s men are coming. Dude, Colorado, and Stumpy are holed up in the jailhouse, waiting for the attack. And what do these flinty killers do? They sing. First, they sing the gentle cowboy tune “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” and then they sing the rollicking “Get Along Home, Cindy.” What do we gain from this sequence? On a plot level, nothing at all. Perhaps, as it’s easy to surmise, it was a simple concession to fans of Martin and Nelson, who’d have wanted to hear them sing. But on a character level, we gain everything from this scene—“I find the song sequence endlessly fascinating,” Robin Wood writes in his book. We learn who these men are. We may well pick up on some erotic subtext in the affection of the gazes between them, the primary source of Wood’s fascination. But really, we learn something about ourselves based on whether we think two songs in a row is a worthwhile way of passing the time.

In his dating days, Quentin Tarantino used Rio Bravo as a litmus test: if the woman he was seeing didn’t respond to it, there wouldn’t be another date. This, according to an introduction Tarantino made before a 2007 screening at Cannes, is because Dude, Chance, Colorado, Stumpy, and Feathers are his friends. That is what makes Rio Bravo emblematic of Tarantino’s personal favorite subgenre: the hangout movie. These are characters worth spending time with, regardless of the plot they’re caught up in. Maybe we watch for the dynamite-laden shootout of an ending—a surprisingly bloodless showdown in this relatively gentle film, nothing like the bloodbath that took inspiration from Hawks, John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). But more so, we want to see Dude do the impossible: pour a glass of liquor back into the bottle without spilling a drop, putting his demons away with it. It’s this image that graces the cover of Robin Wood’s BFI Film Classics volume—not Chance firing on the Burdette hideout, not Dude taking aim at an outlaw bleeding from the rafters, just the simple gesture of a man choosing something better for himself. In his book, Wood makes what he calls an embarrassing confession: “every time Dude pours that whiskey back into the bottle … I burst into tears … Dammit, I have tears in my eyes now, just from writing that.”

I’ve said “we” to refer to lovers of this film. The truth is, I hadn’t seen it until this past week, but I watched it twice in two days, once out of curiosity and again out of compulsion. I’ve already begun a third watch; like so many good Westerns, Rio Bravo feels like a novel I want to forever have a bookmark in: ready to pick up and enjoy, with a few passages left for next time. This makes me what David Bordwell calls “a Seeker who [has] become an Initiate.” I think Westerns tend to draw a certain kind of seeker—there’s a reason the setting became the backdrop for the transcendent tradition of the acid western. Even if you’re only there for the fistfights and shootouts, these films guide us towards something primal. They’re American myths that feel close enough to touch. Rio Bravo is a sort of myth, but it’s a roomy and rangy one, a tale told by the campfire when the sun isn’t quite down and there’s plenty of time for embellishment. For two songs in a row.

It’s Dude who begins to sing, what Robin Wood sees as a sort of “victory celebration” after Dude’s defeat of the bottle. He lies on his back, his hat over his eyes, a cigarette between his fingers, Dean Martin’s sonorous croon slipping out of his mouth. Chance pours himself some coffee and drifts in to listen. We see now that Colorado is sitting nearby with a guitar, Stumpy with a harmonica; both join in with Dude, who continues singing as though in a dream. Stumpy’s eyes are closed, too, but Colorado is smiling as he watches Dude, and Chance is smiling, as well. Imagine that—tough old John Wayne cracking a grin at a jailhouse singalong. Colorado begins to sing, and Dude whistles along now, then joins him in a duet. No more cow to be ropin’, they sing. No more strain will I see. ’Round the bend she’ll be waitin’ for my rifle, my pony, and me.

“Go on,” Stumpy begs, “play some more.” And here is where the film flips into the realm of the transcendent. Because who in the audience would disagree? Burdette’s men may be coming; a firefight may be looming. But for now, what we want to hear is these men playing some more. “Why don’t you play something I can sing with ye?” Stumpy asks.

Immediately, Colorado kicks in, strumming harder. “That’s a good’n!” Stumpy calls, picking up his harmonica. Get along home, Cindy, Cindy, all three men sing. Get along home, Cindy, Cindy. Stumpy’s voice is surprisingly lovely through his toothless grin. Get along home, Cindy, Cindy. I’ll marry you sometime.

“That’s nice,” Stumpy sighs as the song ends, almost four minutes of screentime spent on music, now heading into the final half-hour with nearly two at our back. “Better than bein’ out in the street gettin’ shot at!”

It’s better than most things, really—two songs in a row at what might be the end of the line. It’s a comfort now, more than half a century after those songs were sung on some Hollywood set. Rio Bravo offers a vision of the world as expansive and vivid, with room for random acts of violence and random acts of joy. This is a Western, but so, too, is it a story of human beings finding their way, whistling past the graveyard, always en route to another rendezvous with Feathers (do we care that Wayne is nearly twice Dickinson’s age? We choose not to). What can we do, as Sonia asks Uncle Vanya? We live through the long procession of days, and through the long evenings. And if we’re lucky, we have good friends to hang out with, even if they only live on screen. If we’re lucky, we get two songs in a row.