Monday, February 26, 2018

Rio Lobo--Howard Hawks' Sad Farewell

Howard Hawks' last film gets off to a rip-roaring start with a small band of Confederate soldiers hijacking a Union train carrying a gold shipment. Cord McNally (John Wayne), a Yankee colonel, takes off in pursuit of the Rebels, but is quickly captured. Surprisingly, he bonds with two of his captors, Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivera) and Sergeant Tuscarora Phillips (Christopher Mitchum). McNally escapes easily enough, but the trio meet up again at the end of the Civil War.

McNally harbors no ill feeling toward Cordona and Tuscarora, even though his protege, a young Yankee officer, died during the train robbery. Instead, McNally wants revenge on the Union traitor that tipped off the Rebels about the gold. Cordona and Tuscarora can't provide a name, but agree to contact McNally should they encounter the traitor again.

Scene-stealer Jack Elam shows up late.
It's not long before McNally, Cordona, and Tuscarora meet up for a third time...this time to fight some bad men in the town of Rio Lobo. And you can bet there's going to be some shootin' and some fisticuffs.

Ten of John Wayne's final twelve films were Westerns. These dozen pictures include a couple of gems (True Grit, The Shootist), some moderately entertaining oaters (Big Jake, The Cowboys), and a couple of genuine duds. Unfortunately, Rio Lobo is one of the duds, which is a shame considering it was director Howard Hawks' last film.

Jennifer O'Neill and Jorge Rivera.
The opening train robbery is the film's highlight and it's all downhill from there. The plot lacks interest, the dialogue teeters on risible, and there are two dreadful supporting performances. One of those belongs to Wayne's co-star Jorge Rivera. A major star in Mexico, Rivera never seems comfortable as the kind of young sidekick played effortlessly by James Caan in the earlier Hawks-Wayne Western El Dorado (1967).

It doesn't help that Rivera shares several of his scenes with Jennifer O'Neill. It was the former model's first major film role and she struggles just to speak a line of dialogue naturally. O'Neill's acting challenges led to Hawks' decision to cut her character from the film's ending. She just disappears with about 15 minutes left in the movie. In the book Howard Hawks: Interviews, the director said of Jennifer O'Neill: "She just couldn't take direction of any kind and didn't want to. But she thought she was good, she wanted to do things her way."

Future studio executive Sherry Lansing.
Yet, if Rio Lobo is a depressing final film for its famous director, there are a couple of bright spots. Jerry Goldsmith's rousing music underscores the action nicely. Sherry Lansing, who would later gain fame as a powerful studio executive, exudes charm and sex appeal as a Mexican girl. And, best of all, journalist George Plimpton pops up as a minor bad guy.

Plimpton documented the experience in one of his TV specials. I recommend watching it instead of Rio Lobo--it's a lot more entertaining.


  1. Sherry Lansing said when she first auditioned, Hawks punched her in the stomach. "THAT'S where I want your voice to come from."

    Just another Director's Twilight Of The Gods. Did any of the old helmers go out on a high note? John Huston, maybe.

  2. I saw this a long time ago, and primarily remember it for having some of the worst acting I've ever seen, as you point out. Jennifer O'Neil never did learn to act.

  3. I get a sick feeling just reading the title in the TV Guide.

  4. Aww, come on guys.It's certainly not primo Hawks, but it's not THAT bad. Of the five movies Hawks made after "Rio Bravo" (my own personal favorite), only "Red Line 7000" was a real turkey. "El Dorado", "Hatari", and "Man's Favorite Sport" are actually quite good.

    1. I liked "Hatari" as a kid. Haven't seen it for a long while but remember it was quite the showcase for Elsa Martinelli. She and Wayne, no chemistry, but she was easy on the eyes.

  5. Rio Lobo, a more or less acknowledged semi-remake of Rio Bravo (1959) and its remake, El Dorado (1966), is not without its rewards for those who relish old-style Westerns, but coming from an era when Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were reinventing the genre it feels like a sad anachronism.

  6. I've not seen Rio Lobo because I felt this territory had already been covered with Rio Bravo and El Dorado. But reading your review and the above comments has made me really curious.

    Maybe Rio Lobo isn't the best film to end a career but, like you say, Howard Hawks certainly left us with a lot of impressive films.