#29 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Howard Hawks’ last movie reminds me of Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s last film. It’s a final film steeped in the well-worn conventions of an individual director’s work. Not exactly their best, it has a lot of the same charms of his best, even if it had been done better before. Also, Hawks completely ripped off Rio Bravo again for the film’s final act, much to the chagrin of Leigh Brackett, the co-writer brought on to fix the script started by Burton Wohl, with instructions from Hawks to inject more of his last big hit into this. It’s sad to say, but it really kind of feels like Hawks had simply given up in the end. He’s still go the chops to entertain, but he seemed to stop caring.
The film begins towards the end of the Civil War. John Wayne’s Colonel Cord McNally is a Union officer awaiting the delivery of Union gold at a remote train stop. Out to thwart this delivery of gold is a small Confederate outfit led by Jorge Rivero’s Captain Pierre Cordona. In an entertaining little heist sequence, Cordona’s men stop the train, disconnect the car with the gold on a slope, throw a hornet’s nest into the car, and stop the runaway car with a series of ropes tied to trees further down the track. McNally isn’t going to tolerate this, and he leads his men on the trail. However, the trail keeps diverging until McNally, having sent smaller and smaller contingents of men in different directions, is finally alone and catches up, getting promptly captured. McNally and Cordona, whom McNally begins to call Frenchy (despite Rivero being full-blooded Mexican, a point I’ll return to later), form a kind of professional bond that gets split when McNally escapes. At the end of the war, McNally runs into Cordona getting paid a couple of dollars after being released from his status as prisoner of war, and McNally tries to figure out who gave Cordona the information on the train to begin with. He doesn’t have a name, but one of the two men who gave him the information was an albino. With word that they’ll be heading towards the same part of Texas, near Rio Lobo, McNally says goodbye.
This is the setup for the film, establishing our two main male characters. Up to this point, I was really wondering what all the talk of remaking Rio Bravo again was about. This was decidedly different. And then McNally shows up in Blackthorne, Texas, and it began to form. In Blackthorne, McNally is chasing word sent to him about a potential lead when he meets Jennifer O’Neill’s Shasta who is running away from Rio Lobo because her employer, a snake oil salesman, was shot in that town and she wants justice. The local sheriff won’t do anything since Rio Lobo is out of his jurisdiction, but McNally is willing to help, especially after Cordona happens to be in the same hotel where they kill the albino. Together they head down to Rio Lobo.
Okay, so enough plot, let’s talk about some of these actors. John Wayne was pretty old at this point, but I’m just glad that there’s no love interest for him. He plays himself easily and is fine. Jorge Rivero is a curious choice for a Confederate officer being full-blooded Mexican, and his casting has everything to do with Hawks not being able to afford Robert Mitchum. As a compromise, Hawks, still chasing box office returns, decided to cast the number one movie star from Mexico, Rivero. It’s such an odd choice on its face. I think Rivero is fine in the part, nothing particularly special, but he doesn’t really fit, nor does he pop off the screen.
The other major actor is Shasta’s Jennifer O’Neill. A model with scant acting experience, Hawks ended up hating her on set, ultimately diminishing her role, especially in the ending. She’s fine in the role, but the behind the scenes drama cuts out a character that, based on her role in getting McNally into the action in Rio Lobo to begin with, should have been central to the ending instead of shoved aside for another female character. I think this all points to Hawks just not caring very much about the movie itself. The casting of Rivero was a purely commercial one that didn’t really stick, and he let personal pique alter the third most important character’s place in the film. He’s done similar things before like on Red River, but the accumulation of problems with casting, along with the repeat of Rio Bravo again, feels like he was just phoning it in without really trying.
The repeat of Rio Bravo begins surprisingly late in the film where the local tyrant, Ketchum, is trying to steal land grants of everyone around him, including that of Old Man Phillips (Jack Elam), the father of one of McNally’s soldiers from the war (killed by Frenchy in that opening action scene, a connection that never really gets much mention). They find Ketchum at his house, take him hostage, and end up at the, yes, local jail to await for the cavalry to arrive. This turn into Rio Bravo territory is the most unnatural of the three films. It doesn’t really fit, feeling like an easy way to end a movie that Hawks wasn’t terribly interested in making anymore.
There’s fun to be had here in an easy, John Wayne western sort of way. Wayne is always watchable, and it’s nice as he, in a befuddled manner, wonders what to make of the seeming advances of the much younger Shasta after a night camping out under the stars. Rankled at the idea of being called “comfortable” is a nice place for an older star to end up, I think. O’Neill and Rivero are fine, as stated, and Elam provides some very good late-stage amusement as the cross-eyed Phillips.
Hawks’ compromises and easy out work against the story, though, to the point that I couldn’t quite recommend the film. Better to watch the two other versions of the story. They’re both better.