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Rio Lobo Review

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by Chris McEneany May 21, 2011 at 8:59 PM

    Rio Lobo Review

    The Wells Fargo stage broke through Indian Country and got a precious hoard to me. In one terrific fell-swoop, I received a Western overload that comprised John Wayne in Big Jake, Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse, Joel McCrea in the brutal Fort Massacre, the magnificent Once Upon A Time In The West (which, let's face it, we've all been waiting for) and, of course, this … John Wayne in Rio Lobo. A rootin'-tootin' time is pretty much guaranteed, I'm sure you'll agree.

    But, it seems that you have to take the rough with the smooth, don't you? Even the Duke would have to admit that some of the trails he travelled were less than memorable than others. And, that when it comes down to it, some of them were really quite wretched.

    In 1970, John Wayne re-teamed with the once great Howard Hawks – both of whom had attained magnificent success with Red River and Rio Bravo in the past, with Hawks being the star's next most famous director after John Ford – to make Rio Lobo, a distinct throwback Western that pitched Wayne as an ex-Union officer hell-bent on tracking down the treasonous spies that had been selling information to the enemy during the war … information that had cost the North a fortune in gold supplies and resulted in the death of a close friend. Once the war has ended he allies himself with a couple of the Confederates who had been using this intelligence to pull-off some daring train robberies, and he finds himself drifting back down south to Texas to hunt these loose-lipped double-agents.

    By now Wayne was heavily into his relaxed cinematic mode, but he is still visibly tired as Colonel Cord McNally, the soldier who puts aside his war-time differences and enlists the aid of Jorge Rivero's Southern Capt. Pierre Cordona and his indefinably and irritatingly “nice” Sgt. Tuscorora Philips, played by Chris Mitchum. Down in the little town of Rio Lobo, they discover that their quarry, Victor French's vile Ketchum, is now busy oppressing the dusty hamlet in that petty tyrannical style so beloved of many an A-Team villain. He's leaning on Philips' old Pop, played with eye-bulging aplomb by Jack Elam, with extortion and blackmail and other nefarious schemes up his sleeve so that he can snaffle the rancher's land from him, so the repatriated civvies have now found themselves something of a crusade to go on. It's time for some good old justice to be meted out. After all, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Even if it seems as though that man has actually done it a hundred times before already.

    The film is thematically linked to both Hawks' earlier Rio Bravo and El Dorado, and all three were scribed by Leigh Brackett, who concocted this one together with Burton Wohl, developed from Wohl's story. The old Hawksian template is adhered to, with various mismatched and disparate individuals having to band together to overcome an obstacle or, in this case, to work towards a collective goal. Once again, we end up with a leading heavy held in the jail by the good guys who are trying to last out until the cavalry arrives. Women figure quite heavily, not least in the luscious brunette form of Jennifer O' Neill's embittered Shasta Delaney, who is seeking revenge on Ketchum and his boys for the murder of her tonic remedy business partner. Susana Dosamantes makes for an appealing local under the rule of corrupt and murderous Sheriff Hendricks (Clint Walker lookalike, Mike Henry). And even future Hollywood exec Sherry Lansing gets in on the act as the feisty and voluptuous Amelita, another lady on the receiving end of the mob's sadistic reign of terror.

    After a series of tit-for-tat raids and kidnappings, the whole shebang naturally culminates in a big bad shoot-out. Scores are settled and wrongs are put right.

    Sadly, though, the film is a godawful mess. Tepid, contrived, extremely poorly written by Brackett (which is massively unusual for the woman who penned 1946's The Big Sleep and both of Hawks' earlier incarnations of the story) and hauled even deeper into the morass of ignominy by the appalling performances of Rivero and O' Neill. Although loosely related to the lorded style of Rio Bravo and El Dorado, the directorial panache and wisecracking chemistry and sheer exuberance of those two classics is nowhere to be seen here, and the Hawks of this uninspiring low-rent drivel is most certainly not the same man who could marshal such big name ensemble alchemy. Of course, both he and Wayne were older now. You could hardly expect the same old verbal fireworks or the same dynamic exchanges and confrontations to bounce off the screen. But the mood should have been cosily familiar, as opposed to being just a bag of stale old clichés, spilling over with bland contrivance. Under such lazy direction, Wayne abuses the power of his own character and reduces Cord to an ever-smiling, totally amiable waste of space. Even when captured by the Rebels under Cordona in the lengthy opening act, he is just too damn agreeable with them. They are the enemy, for God's sake! These guys have just caused him and his company a lot of grief … and they've broken the neck of his loyal subordinate and friend too. Mind you, they treat their captive like an old friend – all smiles and soft banter. This becomes the general tone of the film at large. Various miscreants are encountered, even the normally redoubtable Jack Elam, who by this stage has turned his sinister roguery to comedy, gets to chew the scenery with decided relish, but the lack of proper menace makes it a deadly dull affair that suffers from little forward momentum and utterly no sense of proper jeopardy or tension.

    This is compounded when McNally and his unlikely team lay siege to Ketchum's place. One by one, they take out the guards and leave them unconscious beside their weapons instead of taking the guns with them. And then, during a later confrontation, the good Colonel orders the baddies to drop their guns and move off down the street. He and his crew then hole up in the jail leaving the pile of handy firepower on the boardwalk outside! Eh? Oh, and how about this – as they head off to the final showdown, McNally spies his trusty Winchester in the saddle-holster of his horse and simply throws his other rifle to the floor and walks off leaving it there … for any passing bad guy to pick up! I know that both the Duke and Hawks are old and forgetful, but this sort of thing is just ridiculous.

    There is a weird opening title sequence which allows us to see Jerry Goldsmith's whimsical guitar elegy actually being played in close-up by a pair of unidentified hands. This nostalgic pastoral seems to have blundered in from a different film entirely. It is almost arty, which I am not complaining about, but the effect is completely at-odds with the rest of the film. The title theme that Goldsmith composes is beautiful, light and sentimental, almost like something that Elmer Bernstein would have crafted for a rustic period melodrama, the gentle mood evocative of a story about the passing of a way of life, or even, say, a swell theme for Wayne's own swansong, The Shootist – yet this is absolutely diametrically opposed to the film itself, which is, on the surface, full of shoot-outs and villains and humorous banter. But, as you would expect from the master, he is then able to develop variations on this theme that spot the rest of the movie with a pleasant, though very sixties vibe. Having said this, the rest of his score, as buoyant as it is, is actually quite weak and by-the-numbers for the acclaimed tunesmith which, in itself, is something of a shocker. This was around the time that he would create the score for The Wild Rovers, itself an unusually gentle Western, and One Little Indian which remains an absolute classic for yet another rather offbeat oater – the CD of that score is reviewed separately. Goldsmith, as many of you will already know, is my favourite composer of all time, and I have to say that, beyond Rio Lobo I can't think of a score of his that I've admired less. It just doesn't seem to fit Hawks' film at all.

    The opening act, detailing in a protracted and largely unexciting manner the Confederates performing their daring train-heist of Union bullion is chock-full of horrible lines as both forces scurry about, issuing orders to their troops and dropping name and rank into almost every sentence. Too much time is spent conveying messages relayed over the telegraph – which is perhaps an unwitting metaphor for the Duke's sleepwalking performance – and when the action comes it is half-hearted and contemptible, despite being coordinated by the great Yakima Canutt, who handled all the 2nd Unit action for Hawks. Lots of people jumping from a thundering carriage was simply not exciting any more, and just how many trees had the Rebels roped-in to their speed-trap? It looks like about three miles' worth! Wayne, however, still looks mighty fine in his full-on Cavalry uniform as he rides at the head of the rescue column … it is just too bad that he ditches it for his more conventional waistcoat and trademark blue, red or salmon-pink shirts once the war is forgotten about and the story heads down to Texas.

    It is nice to see some favourite old genre faces cropping up, such as Wayne regular Hank (The Searchers) Wordern, Dallas' Jim Davis, and the garrulous Southern tsunami of David Huddleston in the typically bluff 'n' bluster role of the town dentist, and chief of exposition. On the downside, Huddleston's very familiar presence is also one of the elements that makes you think you are watching a TV movie. William H. Clothier puts his customary mark on the picture with some reasonably fine photography which may be less ambitious or picturesque than we are used to from the man who lensed Fort Apache, The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Alamo, but ensures that the film's exteriors do not lack for scope and that the conventional travelogues are richly textured and full of depth. He does his best with the enforced studio sets, of course, though even he cannot make that painted sky backdrop look convincing at the camp-fire stop-over on the way to Rio Lobo. It is all surprisingly violent, too, that lighter tone notwithstanding. Women get slapped around and one is even viciously sliced across the face. Although the slicing occurs off-camera, we get to see the rather cruel stick-on wound. People are clubbed and beaten and there are even a few blood-squibs exploding, although none of this is in the least bit disturbing. So Rio Lobo does contain its fair share of action. Yet despite the good bits, this all gets stale much too quickly and the movie becomes a tedious bore to sit through.

    The acting, as I have already mentioned, can be truly abominable. I remain stunned at just how bad Jennifer O' Neill is. Oh, she is pretty to look at. There's no worries on that score – and it is nice to catch that fleeting glimpse of white stockings and suspenders as she awakens in Cordona's bed after a post-skirmish faint. But she cannot deliver her admittedly rank dialogue either convincingly or professionally. Or even on time for that matter with a couple of startling miscues. Her exchanges with her two male leads are cringe-worthy and most amateurish. With such a poor performance here, it is hard to imagine that she would go on to carve out an under-the-radar clutch of genre and exploitation hits over the ensuing decade or so, with The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud, A Force Of One (with Chuck Norris), The Psychic for Lucio Fulci and Scanners for David Cronenberg, and acquit herself quite decently in them too. And then there is Rivero, who may have pumped some serious iron for the role to gain a chest like Woody Strode's, but couldn't act if his life depended on it. The whole French/Mexican heritage for the former Confederate is lame and seems as if it has only been created to allow the Duke to refer to the character as “Frenchy” - Wayne liked to use semi-mocking nicknames for his co-stars. The exchanges between Rivero and O' Neill are execrable and when these two become the romantic couple of the piece, Wayne now resigned to the fact that he simply too old to get the girl, what little flow of chemistry that exists across the cast becomes stagnant with bilge. Even Robert Mitchum's son, Chris, who certainly looks the part of a dishevelled and unkempt Johnny Reb, fails to come up to scratch by being too damn nice all the time, and helping to ensure that this trio appear comprehensively out of their depth. Chris Mitchum, however, would be hugely better in the immediate Wayne follow-up, Big Jake, which is massively better than Rio Lobo in almost every respect, and will be reviewed separately.

    Apparently, Hawks laid some blame for the film's poor quality at Wayne's feet, citing that the Duke was simply too old to carry off the part with any conviction and was merely slumming it. Well, this seems to me to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The very fact that Hawks was, in essence, telling the same story that he'd told twice before smacks of the utmost, play-it-safe laziness on his behalf. On the one hand, you can't knock the guy for going out on the range one last time with the star who was the very epitome of Hollywood's West but, on the other, he had a pedigree to live up to and standards to maintain, expectations to meet. This just seems like an excuse for himself and Wayne to go riding the frontier again, almost like a vanity project for the two elder statesmen. Better things were on the horizon for the leathery-joweled Duke, of course – McQ, Brannigan, The Cowboys, Rooster Cogburn and The Shootist – so there was definitely life in the old dog yet, but it is hard to see exactly what he got out of making this particular film. Of course, Wayne is merely playing Wayne and his detractors would cite that it probably makes no difference what film he is in, yet, for me, there is actually precious little of that innate and iconic persona in Rio Lobo that doesn't feel completely manufactured and purely rolled-off the assembly-line. That indefinable inner spark just isn't there, and Wayne seems to watching the young'uns around him with a curious bemusement.

    Hawks, at 74, did not have a good time on his final production, and his esteemed career bows-out with a whimper that belies all the cherished titles that had gone before. Even the ten-a-cent Western quickies that the likes of Rory Calhoun used to churn out had more impetus, style and character than this. I so wish that I could just accept Rio Lobo for what it wants to be … which is nothing more than a “fun Western” … but I can't. It is a lazy, contrived retread that isn't fit to walk in the footsteps of its illustrious forebears. The two main shakers behind this were capable of so much better, though even if they had been at the top of their game, it's a cinch that their supporting cast would still have let them down and badly ruined all the fun, regardless of how well they'd handled things.

    Well, folks, I love the Duke's films, and I really had thought that seeing Rio Lobo for the first time after many, many years I would find something of worth in it. But I think even die-hard pro-Waynists and fellow Western fanatics are going to have a struggle on their hands with this one. The action is nothing other than perfunctory despite some obvious attempts to make the initial train robbery an elaborately constructed set-piece, the comedic dialogue is just plain embarrassing, some of the acting is unbelievably bad and the overall tone is that of the lowliest of sanitised seventies TV movie. Plus we can't help but get the inescapable feeling that all we are really doing is witnessing two legends utterly squandering their considerable talents right there in front of us. It is a shameful exercise for all concerned. Even Goldsmith's score struggles to add anything positive – a fact that actually hurts me to confess – to a film that is nothing more than a lethargic rehash of many infinitely better interpretations … including two from Wayne and Hawks.

    Rio Lobo is a rousing flop, folks, but with John Wayne in it there is still a strong fraternity who will require it for their collections … even if only as a sour footnote to a genuine screen icon meandering at the start of his own final chapter.