Rio Lobo (1970)

I can never remember if I have seen this film.  So I turn it on and suddenly I realize that I have, but other than George Plimpton getting shot, it’s a blank.  Yesterday, I watched it again.  There are some interesting parts, but otherwise it is one of the lesser John Wayne films in my book.  News to me – I actually own a copy of the film.

So why review it? Rio Lobo is not a bad film, it is just a tired, retread of films we have already seen.  In the pantheon of Wayne films, rarely do you hear much about this film.  Not every film Wayne made was a classic, let’s be honest.  There were some duds. If Rio Lobo was a student, they would get a C as a grade; and as a classmate you’d look back and not remember much of anything about that fellow student you probably sat next to in class.

John Wayne and director Howard Hawks teamed up for the last time for this end of Civil War Western.  They were hoping to repeat the magic of El Dorado (1966), Hatari (1962) Rio Bravo (1959)  and Red River (1948).

Wayne would make eight films over the next five years, knowing his time was running out. Rio Lobo lost money on release, but Wayne move on to Big Jake (1971), a much better film.

On a rainy afternoon, a film like Rio Lobo is like an old friend who delights in telling you stories you’ve heard many times over and you realize the how puffed up the stories have gotten over time. In Rio Lobo, can almost predict what will happen and which actors are playing roles originated in El Dorado or Rio Bravo.

The year was 1970 and only a couple of years removed from game-changing Westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Westerns had turned a corner from Wayne’s El Dorado and The War Wagon.  Even his True Grit (1969) showed a big maturity that is absent in Rio Lobo, a film that could have been made in any prior decade.  Rio Lobo had no signature, nothing about it advanced the genre or even distinctive, which is important when the script is very average.  Word of mouth on this film did not put seats in seats.

Rio Lobo was Hawks’ last film before he retired.  The energy and magic were lacking in this film.  The best part of Rio Lobo was the opening 19 minutes, the sequence where the Confederate soldiers hijack a train carrying Yankee payroll.  The action is imaginative and well-staged, something Hawks’ crew and second unit were responsible.  The rest of the film is strictly by the numbers.  Hawks was a filmmaker for a different era, which is interesting, because Wayne adapted himself to the rhythm of the 1970s, which ushered in tougher, grittier and more realistic films.  Audiences expected realism on screen, they didn’t need to be protected by the morality police. In his later films, Wayne loosened up, but still brought his A- game, even when the films were nowhere near classics.

Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote the screenplay, from Burton Wuhl’s story, had often worked with Hawks.  She had written Rio Bravo and El Dorado, and borrowed from her own films for Rio Lobo.  Brackett gives the material the John Wayne treatment.  You cannot help but feel like you’ve seen this film before.  In a way, you have seen it twice already.

Wayne’s Col. McNally ends up friends with the Confederate soldiers who stole his gold.  They all end up in Rio Lobo, Texas, fighting corruption, with the assistance of Shasta (Jennifer O’Neill).  If you are keeping score, Wayne is playing Cole Thornton from El Dorado.  O’Neill is playing the Michele Carey role, Jack Elam plays the Arthur Hunnicutt role, Jorge Rivero is a variation of the Robert Mitchum character, Christopher Mitchum is the James Caan character, and Victor French is the Ed Asner character.

Jorge Rivera and Christopher Mitchum
Jennifer O’Neill

Wayne hired many veteran actors, including a few of his regulars – Edward Faulkner, Gregg Palmer, Elam and Jim Davis.  At that point, O’Neill was unknown, and Mitchum was in several of Wayne’s films.  Mike Henry and David Huddleston were familiar faces.  Unfortunately, the cast around Wayne was not strong, and that was evident in the story and overall feel of the film.  While the production values were high, the story and acting lead you to think this was a B-film.

The look of the film is bright and colorful.  William Clothier was the director of cinematographer, whose career stretched back to the early days of Hollywood, and was a frequent collaborator of Hawks, John Ford and William Wellman.  Wayne’s company, Batjac produced the film n partnership with Cinema Center Films.  Wayne was producing most of his own films at this point, though he entered into a few production deals.

Rio Lobo was filmed at the Old Tucson Studios, where El Dorado and Rio Bravo were made.  The studios had a long history of Westerns, the landscape is gorgeous and provides all the symbolism of the West.

Master thespian George Plimpton with Wayne.

One of the promotional features of Rio Lobo was the inclusion of writer George Plimpton in a minor role. He had one line and got killed. Plimpton made a television program out of this film role.  He was famous for using his experiences as a circus performer, as a football player, baseball pitcher, stand-up comedian and boxer as the basis for articles and books. He described what it was like as an average person in the world of professionals. He died very ungraciously, and with his boots in. Just like a pro.


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