In 1970 the publicity machine was knocking itself dead, extolling Howard Hawks's "Rio Lobo" even before it was finished. Much was made of Hawks being reunited with saddle pard John Wayne, with whom he made classics such as "Red River" and "Rio Bravo," among other films.
Journalist George Plimpton (who scored a cameo) did a TV documentary on "Rio Lobo" and Hawks, thus pushing expectations even closer to the stratosphere. Sadly, "Rio Lobo" was a huge disappointment, even to hardcore Wayne and Hawks fans like me. Critics savaged it and the film vanished. The Duke continued working but Hawks retired.
I bought the two-DVD set of Westerns at a bargain basement price, one of the films indeed being "Rio Lobo," the other the far superior "Monte Walsh." Bad memories kept me from screening "Rio Lobo" for more than a month, but I finally gave in — and guess what? I had a pretty good time!
The film's warts are still there, big and bold: Wayne surrounded by attractive youngsters who are wooden and stiff. His hunky co-star, Jorge Rivero, allegedly spoke little English, but learned his lines phonetically, thus making delivery almost robotic. The plan itself was a rehash, yet not warmed nearly enough.
Hawks apparently knew the film was a failure even while shooting it on gorgeous locations in old Mexico. He reportedly was so disgusted he told his editors to cut out as much bad stuff as they could. The parent company, National General, was dying. I think they should have spent their remaining money on Hawks, not PR.
Well, either I've aged or mellowed, but 40 odd years later "Rio Lobo" wasn't quite the disaster I remembered. It's far from perfect and will thus remain far from perfect, but seated on my couch, I enjoyed meeting the film once again, through older eyes.
A huge asset is a very relaxed Wayne being Wayne being directed by Hawks. There are some sterling old-timers: Bill "Kit Carson" Williams, Bob Donner, David Huddleston and two stunt experts, Dean Smith and Chuck Roberson, who's been with Duke since the late 1940s.
Hawks's "Rio Lobo" doesn't begin but explodes, with an astoundingly staged train robbery (they rob the entire train!) done in typical Hawksian manner — taut, tight and breathless. In a Union army uniform, Wayne looked great, and did some really hard riding in pursuit.
With a start so spectacular, "Rio Lobo" left itself with nowhere else to go, although the final gunfight is a barn burner, Wayne armed with the wide-loop 1892 Winchester carbine he'd used in "Stagecoach" and "Rio Bravo," an icon packing an icon.
The film literally drapes itself on The Duke's hefty shoulders, as his young players don't cut the cactus. Jennifer O'Neill would go on to better things, but here, she's just awful! Chris Mitchum plays a cipher who can't keep his Southern accent. He'd be more solid in the thunderous "Big Jake" in '71.
Only that squint-eyed scene stealer Jack Elam is up to Wayne's professionalism, and he's splendid comic relief, though he doesn't show up for nearly a half hour. Victor French plays the villain like a reject from a Mack Sennett silent, all but twisting the ends of his mustache and sneering.
What it comes down to is do you like The Duke or do you not, for he's basically the whole show in "Rio Lobo." Wayne was a trouper, always giving his all. I don't know how he felt about the end result or his treatment from Hawks.
For five bucks I got two Westerns and a second chance at "Rio Lobo." Far from all the ballyhoo of 1970, it again proves that, except John Ford and Henry Hathaway, nobody directed Duke like Hawks. It shows, in the film's best moments!
- Larry Robinson, poughkeepsiejournal.com
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