Sunday, September 26, 2010

Do Not Forsake Me

Films: Rio Bravo, High Noon
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Rio Bravo), DVD from DeKalb Public Library (High Noon) on laptop.

There is a real charm to a good western movie, particularly an old-school one from more than 40 years ago. There’s a simplicity to them that is refreshing. After watching films where the protagonist is evil, or insane, or conflicted, or more an anti-hero than a true hero, a classic western brings back that sense of comfort. There are good guys, there are bad guys, and the two never mix. Anyone who has fallen and wants to be redeemed can be, and the bad guys will eventually fall to their own wicked ways in the end.

Regardless, Rio Bravo is that simple, straightforward picture mentioned above. There’s a heroic sheriff named John T. Chance (John Wayne) who arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder after Chance witnesses a bar fight. Also in the bar is “Dude” (Dean Martin) ex-deputy of the sheriff who has since crawled into a bottle. In fact, it’s Dude who starts the fight. As the town drunk, he’s frequently made sport of. Burdette knows Dude is desperate for a drink, and tosses a dollar into the bar’s spittoon. A fight ensues, and when he’s prevented from striking Dude again by a bystander, Burdette shoots the interloper, only to be thrown into jail to await justice.

Unfortunately, things get complicated immediately. A wagon train pulls in led by Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), but is laid up for a day due to the situation. It seems that Joe Burdette is the no-good brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), who is the wealthiest man in the area. He’s hiring anyone he can get his hands on to help spring his brother from jail, with the fate of Sheriff Chance unimportant. Dead, alive, whatever.

Also showing up in town are two important players: Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Colorado is running guard on Wheeler’s wagon train. Feathers is the widow of a crooked gambler, and there’s a warrant out for her, making her a prime target for Chance’s attention. Wheeler wants to help out his old friend the sheriff, who refuses the assistance. Colorado refuses to help, too. Feathers, on the other hand, is somewhat attracted to the lawman, but he’s not having it from her. For his desire to help his friend, Wheeler is gunned down in the street by a paid killer, sparking a new desire for revenge in Chance.

We also have some comic relief, as any classic western had. Working with Chance and the attempting-to-clean-up Dude is Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a lame old man who complains endlessly, but is dependable and guards the jail. Running the hotel where Chance lives is Carlos Robante (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), who frequently mangles the language and is mangled in turn by his wife.

And that’s the set-up here. Chance, Dude, and Stumpy need to hold off Burdette and his gang of hired men until the marshal shows up to take Joe Burdette into custody. There are attempts on everyone’s life and attempts to break into the jail. Through it all, Chance refuses the help of everyone, convinced instead that anyone who tries to help him will end up on the wrong end of a bullet courtesy of Burdette. The death of Pat Wheeler more than anything tells him that he should keep everyone else safe by keeping them out of the situation.

Of course, this is a traditional, old-school western, which means that it’s going to turn out the way you want it to. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. Anyone worthy of being redeemed (Dude, Feathers) is redeemable, and anyone who isn’t will eventually get what’s coming to them. Even our comic relief (Carlos and Stumpy) shows up at critical moments to provide real assistance, even if Chance didn’t want their help.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is High Noon, which is similar in terms of plot and action but completely different in terms of how the characters approach their situation. As with Rio Bravo (actually the other way ‘round because High Noon came first), we have a lawman facing off virtually alone against a gang of thugs.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just gotten married to the beautiful and much younger Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). In addition to being a sweet young thing, Amy is also a Quaker, and she objects heavily to Will’s occupation as a town marshal. Consequently, he also has decided to hang up his badge and head off for a much quieter, less gun-filled life.

It’s at this moment, though, that Will is given very distressing news. Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a man he sent to prison a year earlier, has been released. Miller is coming into town on the noon train (hence the name of the movie), looking for revenge, and he’s bringing his entire gang with him.

This leaves Will in a predicament. He knows that Miller will want his revenge whether Kane stays the lawman or not, and having the power of that star on his chest should make things a little easier for him, at least in theory. He takes back the badge, knowing that a fight is coming in a little more than an hour.

Amy objects, unable to resolve her religious differences with the idea of the violence her new husband simply cannot avoid. While she seems to understand that he can in no way avoid the coming fight, she still pleads with him to leave and try to make a getaway from the Miller gang. When he says that he will or cannot, she threatens to leave on the noon train without him, so strong is her conviction for non-violence.

The film unfolds in front of us in real time. Will spends the bulk of the time up until noon looking for anyone in town to come to his assistance and finding no one. Even his own deputy (Lloyd Bridges, looking about 12 years old) deserts him, leaving him alone to face the Miller gang. Those who want to help him back out at the last minute when they see that they are the only ones who have come to his aid. Everyone is willing to help as long as everyone else is, but no one is willing to take the first step to stand beside Will.

And thus we have the main difference between these two films. In Rio Bravo, Chance won’t ask anyone for help, believing instead that it is a man’s duty to stand on his own and face the dangers without putting anyone else at risk. However, right-thinking people (Colorado and Feathers especially) come to his aid again and again. In High Noon, Will Kane asks for the help he knows he needs and is refused at every turn. When noon finally strikes, he is forced to stand alone against terrible odds, and fight on as best he can.

Which way is better? I like the philosophy of High Noon better, personally. I think there’s something to be said for the idea that people can ask for help, even if it’s refused. Rio Bravo seems to work on the philosophy that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In my experience, it’s more a sign of impending failure. That no one comes to Will Kane’s aid is not a failure of his asking, but a failure of their own courage and character.

Both films were remade a few times. Rio Bravo was turned into El Dorado and then Assault on Precinct 13. High Noon has been remade as High Noon twice and also seems to be a pretty strong influence on the sci-fi film Outland.

Both films are great. High Noon is tighter, grittier, and more nihilistic, and therefore makes (I think) a stronger statement.

Why to watch Rio Bravo: For a straight western, it’s hard to find a better one.
Why not to watch: Ricky Nelson is a lightweight compared with the rest of the cast.

Why to watch High Noon: Every reason you or I can think of.
Why not to watch: There is no reason not to watch this film.


  1. I find it interesting that you cover these two films in the same blog. Especially considering Wayne's contempt for the story told in "High Noon". Like you I find Fred Zinnemann's film a greater story and by far a greater film. Although I think that my support is based on the back story and Wayne's support of the HUAC. As much as I liked Wayne, I find it hard to forgive him for "Big Jim McLain"

    1. I give Big Jim McLain lots of points for being HILARIOUS! Monty Python purposefully making fun of Wayne could not have made a funnier movie.

  2. Since Wayne considered Rio Bravo to be his answer to High Noon, I think the two make sort of a natural counterpoint to each other.

    High Noon is, of course, very much about HUAC, and it works as a great metaphor. However, even without that, it's a hell of a film.

  3. Indeed there are no reasons not to like High Noon. Everything works beautifully. You can see where Leone got his inspiration from.

    1. Yeah, there's not much here I would complain about. This is the way Westerns should be done.