A Western sheriff and two deputies sit around a table, rolling cigarettes
Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo

I’d been wanting to write about Rio Bravo (1959) for a long time, but never got around to it. Seeing as how it just fell out of the BFI Top 100 Movies of All Time list (2022 critics edition; was 63rd in the 2012 critics edition), this is as good a time as any to stump for this iconic film.

In a small Texas town, Sheriff John T. Chance arrests Joe Burdette for murder. The problem? The accused is the ne’er-do-well brother of a powerful gangster. The sheriff sends a request for extradition by the US cavalry, but that will take several days. And the town has been surrounded by and filled with hired guns all waiting for the sheriff to show a moment’s weakness so they can spring the criminal from the small jail. The sheriff is hesitatant to accept help from the people of the town as he doesn’t want them hurt. So for the moment, he is relying on himself, an elderly jailer with a bad leg, and a deputy slowly killing himself with alcohol. The town is otherwise sealed off.

What follows is a classic potboiler with a twist: this is not a grim movie at any point. Instead, it is stylish and full of great dialogue, courtesty of legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday (1940); Bringing Up Baby (1938); Red River (1948)) and legendary screenwriter Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep (1946); The Long Goodbye (1973)). The opening scene is among the most iconic moments in all of the Western genre. It sets the stakes, establishes most of the main characters, and highlights their personalities without a single word of dialogue.



Characters stuck in one location, ratcheting up the tension: the basic plot idea existed before Rio Bravo (see Key Largo (1948) or Agatha Christie stories), but became eternal thanks to the combination of stars, screenplay, score, and direction. Plus, the hangout aspect is its biggest legacy. The film’s structure allows for many scenes of waiting and downtime, and these scenes give the characters room to talk and interact. Action disrupts the waiting, but the action is a series of failed breaches of the jail, so it doesn’t advance the plot as much as it increases the tension. The characters develop through the downtime scenes.

John Wayne is at his best here, using his towering height and stiff back to convey Chance’s resolution at doing his duty. Dean Martin is also never better as the drunken deputy Dude. Angie Dickinson, one of my favorite actresses, plays a mysterious traveler named Feathers, and Ricky Nelson (despite being stunt casting to draw in younger viewers) is value-added as the youngster Colorado. The rest of the cast are fun characters like the innkeepers Carlos and Consuela, the gangster Nathan Burdette, and… hell, you gotta mention Stumpy when you talk about this movie. The main comic relief and moral center of the movie is Deputy Stumpy (Walter Brennan, who had won three Oscars by this point), a hotheaded old coot. Due to his disability, Stumpy spends the movie guarding the jail as he can’t patrol the town, but he is a welcome presence and a steady hand.

The film is one of my favorites, and its influence can be seen across the decades, most especially in the works of John Carpenter.



A martial artist stands in front of an inn. He is surrounded by men bearing swords and spears.
Dragon Inn (1967)


These are some movies and television shows which are either directly or indirectly influenced by Rio Bravo. If nothing else, should you enjoy one of these, I’d heartily recommend watching Rio Bravo.


Dragon Inn (1967)

The many similarities between the Western, the wuxia film, the samurai film, the space opera, and the fantasy film are well established by now. (Read Stephen King’s Dark Tower books if you want a syncretism of all of these genres.)

Dragon Inn is a great wuxia film that seems especially like the Western in its style, and is especially like Rio Bravo in its construction. Here various groups converge on a lonely inn, and the protagonists must band together to hold off vastly superior forces as they wait for help. This movie kicks a ton of ass, and its finale on a wooded precipice must be seen to be believed.


El Dorado (1966), Rio Lobo (1970)

Howard Hawks himself remade Rio Bravo twice, with slight variations and diminishing returns. El Dorado places Wayne in the deputy’s role and makes the drunkard into the sheriff (Robert Mitchum in pure ham mode), and the youngster is replaced with the legendary James Caan in one of his first roles.

Rio Lobo starts with some Civil War backstory before moving into a bottle episode centered on traitors and stolen gold. This is the worst of the three but the heist of the Union gold is enjoyable. Young me had never seen someone hijack a telegraph wire before.


Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing Saddles satirizes and skewers many topics, but I do love that its protagonists are seemingly drawn from Hawks’ film. The drunken Waco Kid and the righteous sheriff who face stark odds sound familiar. Brooks even offered the role of The Waco Kid to John Wayne, if it wasn’t wholly obvious.


Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Ghosts of Mars (2001)

John Carpenter is a Hawks devotee. He is quite explicit in this. Hell, Carpenter does the commentary track on the Rio Bravo blu ray. Carpenter has used homages to Hawks throughout his filmography. Some are subtle, such as taking the pseudonym John T. Chance when editing Assault on Precinct 13 or naming the sheriff in Halloween (1978) Lee Brackett; others are more explicit, such as remaking The Thing From Another World (1951) into the greatest sci-fi/horror film of all time, The Thing (1982).

Assault on Precinct 13 is explicitly an homage to Rio Bravo, with a soon-to-be-closed police station surrounded by a violent gang intent on murder and destruction, and a handful of resolute defenders stuck inside. Assault is tremendous fun and shocking at times, and it has one of Carpenter’s best scores.

Ghosts of Mars is one of Carpenter’s rare bad films, but not for lack of inspiration. I like the idea of porting Rio Bravo to Mars and surrounding the protagonists with spooky spirits that possess the living.


Cop Land (1997)

You’ll probably hear more about director James Mangold in the lead-up to his next film, some movie about an archaeologist who fights Nazis. Indiana something or other.

Mangold is an interesting writer/director who has infused Western tropies into his films like Logan (2017) and Cop LandBut Cop Land in particular focuses on the sheriff of a small town surrounded by threats, which he must navigate with only a few allies and only glimmers of hope from the outside world. Mangold takes the story and turns it on its head by making the residents of the town into corrupt NYC cops and making its lead into a man who has long turned a blind eye to the crimes of his jurisdiction.


The Nest? (2002)

I’ve not seen this French thriller, but it is a remake of Assault on Precinct 13, which makes it part of the legacy. It is on my watch list.


The Last Stand (2013)

Sheriff and deputies all alone? Check. Captured criminal who they must guard until help arrives? Check. Town surrounded by villians? Check. Wooden actor in lead role? Check.

I didn’t much care for Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand but I do like when generic action films do something other than be the sixteen billionth remake of Die Hard or Death Wish. So in that regard, this film was most welcome.


The Hateful Eight (2015)

Quentin Tarantino lists Rio Bravo as one of his three favorite films of all time. This should not surprise given his track record of talky professionals, nor from his love for repurposing scenes, music, performers, sounds, and more from his favorite films. You’ll find plenty of homage and repurposing in The Hateful Eight.

The Hateful Eight is an amalgam of The Thing and Rio Bravo, among others. A marshal is bringing a wanted gangster into town to collect a bounty. The stagecoach stops to collect another bounty hunter and a stranger, and the group stop at a waystation in the mountains to sit out a blizzard. Soon they are snowed in and the marshal sees danger all around him. He knows that the gangster’s brother will do anything to rescue her, but he doesn’t know who to trust.

The film very slowly reveals the true motivations of every character, and twists and turns abound. I love the concept of this film, its cinematography, and its cast… but I hate the film. However, its influences are obvious.


CopShop (2021)

I wrote about this one in 2021 after I saw it in the theater.

This one is more my speed. This is an actioner where the premise is so efficient that you can go wild on character relationships and add twists without disrupting the momentum. A famous drug runner begs to be arrested and he is taken into a remote police station as they await the feds to come scoop him up. The drug runner has stolen money from a kingpin and he knows that hired killers will be after him, so he believes that he will be most safe in a jail cell. This hypothesis is tested in countless ways as the story unfolds, and the cops do not know if they can trust each other, the stranger in the other cell, or anyone else who comes to the door claiming to be an ally.

I really enjoyed this one, with Toby Huss as the standout role, delivering comic relief and wide-eyed murder in equal doses.


Night of the Living Dead? (1968)

An important point must be raised. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is another iconic bottle-story, and it has a far larger legacy across all of pop culture. Tenuous allies trapped in a location and surrounded on all sides has become a staple of the horror genre, the videogame, the action film… Dead is insanely influential.

However, for our purposes, I separate Dead from Rio Bravo by only listing films that include a hangout element to the story. The shifting tone between downtime and action is wholly absent from the zombie film. Or rather, zombie films go from stressful to doubly stressful, whereas Rio Bravo goes from stressful to Breakfast Club. I think the biggest thing that separates Dead from Rio Bravo is the presence of a traitor or other figure within the group who erodes their false safety over the course of the film.

The distinction is subtle and probably irrelevant. However, these stories all feature characters trapped in a location and some hangout elements, but skew more toward Dead as their safety is destroyed from within their ranks:

    • Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
    • From Dusk til Dawn (1996)
    • Doom (2005)
    • Aliens (1986)


Television and Streaming

It is no surprise that television shows look to movies for ideas. These television episodes are notable for being indebted to Rio Bravo’s classic formula.

    • The Punisher, Season 2, Episodes 2 and 3, “Fight or Flight” and “Trouble the Water”
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 8, Episode 6, “A Fistful of Datas”
    • TJ Hooker, Season 3, Episode 22, “Deadlock”


Feathers the showgirl wears a yellow dress and looks amused
Rio Bravo (1959)


Hawks was a legend in Hollywood prior to making Rio Bravo, with his stamp on the screwball comedy genre as well as iconic Westerns and dramas to his name. Leigh Brackett was a trailblazer for female screenwriters, and her work on this and The Big Sleep are well remembered. She also wrote a first draft of The Empire Strikes Back but died before it began filming, and it was rewritten multiple times after (she is given a story credit). John Wayne had continued success for two more decades, although I maintain that this is his finest performance.

The film merges Hawks’ predilection for quick-witted characters with an efficient Western premise, and the result is great fun even if you don’t like the Western genre. And its blending of styles and great premise can still be seen to this day in other movies and shows.