Saturday, December 10, 2016
Rio Lobo (1970)
While I grew up with John Wayne Westerns, we only had a handful that we watched all the time: The Comancheros, The Sons of Katie Elder, Big Jake, The Alamo, The Horse Soldiers, and Rio Lobo were the main six. There were others, of course, but they were watched infrequently compared to these.
Since I was young and non-discerning, I loved Rio Lobo pretty much unreservedly back then. (Okay, let's be honest. Mostly, I had a huge crush on Jorge Rivero, I was heartily amused by Jack Elam, and I loved the Jerry Goldsmith score. Nothing else mattered past those three things.) Then I grew up. Sigh. Then I discovered Rio Lobo is really a mixed bag. When it's good, it's good, when it's bad, it's really bad.
Let's get the bad out of the way: Jennifer O'Neill as Shasta. Egads. She single-handedly drags every scene she's in down to sheer fingers-on-chalkboard awfulness. Shasta ranks as one of the worst movie characters ever, and I just cringe every time she opens her mouth. She's supposed to be an I-can-take-care-of-myself character, but she just sounds horribly whiny throughout. Now, O'Neill sure was pretty, but she can't act worth a bean at this very early stage in her career (I haven't really seen anything of hers when she's older, so I'm optimistically assuming that she improved with experience). Sherry Lansing as Amelita is not really any better. Susana Dosamantes as Maria is the only one of the ladies in this movie I don't mind. She fits into the movie as Tuscarora's girlfriend, and she never stands out as blatantly out of place.
If Shasta and Amelita were actually important to the plot, I might feel differently. But if they vanished from the movie, the plot would be the same. No, it would be way better. One hates to say that about female characters, but these pretty much have no bearing on anything except to look pretty.
What is the plot? The first half hour of the movie takes place during the end of the Civil War. A band of Confederates has been stealing gold payroll shipments from the Yankees. They clearly have inside information telling them when and where, and John Wayne, as Colonel Cord McNally, is trying to find out who on his side is selling the information to the South. As the war is still going, the Confederates won't tell him anything, but once the war ends, Capt. Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) and Tuscarora (Chris Mitchum) freely tell McNally what he wants to know, although they don't actually know the identity of the traitor.
The movie then shifts from the war to Texas and becomes a straight Western. Cordona and McNally head to Rio Lobo to help Tuscarora and his father (a scene-stealing Jack Elam) from some nasty fellows who have taken over the town and are buying up all the land thereabouts for a quarter of what any of its worth. The head bad guy is revealed to be the traitor McNally's been seeking, which ties the segments together. There's a showdown, prisoner exchange, bad guys are killed, everything is set right, the end.
The plot is nothing new, and this movie is actually Howard Hawks' second remake of Rio Bravo! (El Dorado is the other one.) Perhaps this is why the best part of Rio Lobo is the first thirty five minutes, because it's nothing like the other two movies.
That beginning has always been the best part of the movie. The spectacular, clever train robbery, McNally chasing after the thieves, getting captured, leading them into a trap... None of the stuff that drags this movie down (*cough* Shasta *cough*) have shown up yet. We're introduced to Capt. Cordona and Tuscarora, and I always loved how respectfully both sides treat each other. Their friendship in the rest of the movie begins here, with that respect for each other as soldiers. McNally's even willing to let Cordona and Tuscarora go if they give him the name of the traitor, but he also understands when they won't. I love how he immediately comes to see them after the war ends, buys them a drink, and gives Tuscarora money enough to get home.
What else is good? Any time Jack Elam is around. He is flat-out hilarious and gets all the great dialogue. He and John Wayne play off each other like the pros they are, and with a great deal of enthusiasm and fun. Whenever they're together, it is both delightful, and, unfortunately, you also realize how bad everyone else is. This was the first thing I saw Mr. Elam in, so I still always think of him as a good guy, even though he's really played some very nasty characters in his time.
And I love the Jerry Goldsmith score, of course. As usual with him, the quality of the music far exceeds the movie. This was a score I loved so much I taped the music cues I liked off television so I could listen to them in my walkman. Music for me is so critical to whether I like a movie and want to revisit it, that this score alone elevates this movie far above many other technically better movies.
I'm also quite fond of Chris Mitchum, mostly because I love him in Big Jake. He always seems such a good-natured young fellow in these two movies. Victor French as traitor Ketchum/Sgt. Major Gorman cracks me up. He's so panicky and worried after he gets captured. And Mike Henry as Hendricks (the real bad guy of the movie) is average but suitably nasty for the role.
And then there's Jorge Rivero. My adult self realizes he's not great in this either, but neither is he a train wreck like O'Neill. I remember reading ages ago that he spoke little English when he made this, so his weak dialogue delivery might just be due to not understanding the language well enough. My younger self didn't care at all that he wasn't great. She just really liked the handsome, broad-shouldered, athletic, half Mexican/half French character of Captain Pierre Cordona. ("Yeah, well which half was kneeling and which half was kissing her hand?") My favorite scene in the movie is still when he gets captured on the road.
Re-watching this film as an adult, though, I find I mostly appreciate John Wayne. He's got the sheer power, charisma, and professionalism to carry a movie filled with not-so-great actors. He's the true highlight of this movie because he doesn't act like he's in a lesser movie that's beneath him. He doesn't phone it in. You can't tell he's not in the best health. He just gives it his all, as he's always done. He plays McNally honestly and with strength and humor and dignity, even when he has to share scenes with Jennifer O'Neill. And I love John Wayne for that. And watching a lesser movie like this one with John Wayne is still far more enjoyable to me than watching many other better films that don't have him in it.
In conclusion, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this movie. However, if you asked me on any random night if I wanted to watch Rio Bravo, El Dorado, or Rio Lobo, I'm afraid I'd still have to pick Rio Lobo over its two superior predecessors. I've seen Rio Lobo so many times, it's become a bit of a comfort movie for me. This movie was such an influential part of my youth, and so I will always have a fond place for it in my heart (besides, nowadays we have fast-forward buttons and I can skip through the worst of Jennifer O'Neill). Plus, I'm afraid Goldsmith trumps Dimitri Tiomkin and Nelson Riddle, and I'll pick the movie with my favorite music every single time.
This post is an entry in Hamlette and Quiggy's John Wayne Blogathon. Head on over to either page for a list of participating blogs and what topic/movies are being covered. Hamlette is also hosting a giveaway! Thanks to them both for hosting and letting me join in the fun!