Howard Hawks: The Westerns


Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood producer/ director/ screenwriter Howard Hawks (1896-1977). He’s a big subject to tackle, and the king of many a genre. Today I’ll concentrate on the two that are more relevant to my work at present, his westerns and his comedies (next post). We’ll set aside his noir, gangster, war and even science fiction (The Thing from Another World) films ’til if and when the occasion arises.

As for the western, while he only made a comparative few, they were hugely influential. The great Hawskian theme of male bonding under duress manifests itself particularly well in this genre. The fact that today such masculine camaraderie is considered a primary aspect of the genre I think is due chiefly to Hawks. In a time when westerns had long since been considered lightweight kiddie fare, Hawks took them seriously, elevating it into mature entertainment, influencing the entire industry right up to John Ford.

Two things: I always include spoilers, and I’m a critic — not a fanboy. When things aren’t up to snuff I say so, even when I otherwise revere the artist.


Barbary Coast (1935)

This was a perfect film for Hawks to get his toe wet on the way to making westerns. Hawks had made his reputation three years earlier on the ultimate gangster picture Scarface. Barbary Coast is essentially a gangster picture, transplanted to 19th century San Francisco. (I think of “urban westerns” as a minor subgenre of their own. Barbary Coast is set in the thick of the gold rush, so that though San Francisco is a city, it is really a just-born boom town, just as wild as any other fly-by-night western burg, but larger. Miriam Hopkins arrives via ship (the only way out there before the transcontinental railway) to find that her mail-order husband has been killed. She becomes the consort of the casino-owning gangster who runs the town (Edward G. Robinson). This works out okay for a while until she actually falls in love with the noble, poetry-spouting prospector Joel McCrea. A classic Camille-like dilemma transpires — rich suitor vs. poor suitor. She eventually chooses McCrea just as his shot-up body is about to leave on the next packet boat, and Robinson is about to be hung by vigilantes. Also in the picture: Walter Brennan, as a one-eyed, thievin’ prospector, and a very young mustache-less Brian Donlevy. Great movie!


The Outlaw  (1946)

The movie that started it all for Jane Russell. Actually made in 1943 but not released until 1946, it’s an entire movie literally devised by RKO head Howard Hughes to showcase Jane Russell’s legendary breasts. The film was directed in large part by Howard Hawks, but Hughes re-shot and re-edited the film and Hawk’s name from the credits. But Hawks’ hand prints are all over thr film, even if Hughes hacked it up into a mish-mash.

The story is a fictionalized meeting and virtual love triangle betwixt Pat Garret (Thomas Mitchell), Doc Holiday (Walter Huston), and Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). Pat and Doc are old friends (perhaps the cuddliest western heroes ever — like a couple of Ewoks), though the fact that Pat is now a sheriff creates a new divide between them. When the Kid rolls into town, Pat is obligated to catch him. Doc helps Pat at first, but then chooses the Kid’s side. Pat acts jealous.

At a certain point the Kid is shot and has to recuperate at Doc’s girlfriend’s house (Russell). Doc leaves for a month, by which time the Kid and Russell are regularly getting it on. The Kid is only too willing to dump the girl for Doc, however. In the end Pat kills Doc, but switches it so it looks like he killed the Kid, thus starting the legend that he did so.

Though undeniably strange, the film is a classic, worth repeated viewing, at least in my book.


Red River (1948)

Hawks’ best western without a doubt, and one that would rate inclusion on a very short list of best westerns ever. It is an epic, “true story” describing the first cattle drive along the Chisholm trail.  John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, an Ahab-like figure (one of many he played in his career) insanely driven to finish the drive. Montgomery Clift is his adopted son Matt. Walter Brennan is of course the sidekick — in a characterization so out-there and indelible it would remain hugely in demand for the next quarter century.

The three are the sole survivors of an Indian attack on a wagon train. They get to Texas and usurp some land from its rightful Mexican owner and start a ranch. 15 years pass. Much has changed. Dunson has built a huge ranch. Matt has just returned from the Civil War where he fought for the Confederacy. Since the South is destroyed, Dunson is cash poor and has no place to sell his beef. He decides on a cattle drive all the way to the railhead in Missouri: 1000 miles. Many have tried but no one has succeeded. But he is uniquely driven. He has changed. he is no longer the young man who loved a girl in the wagon train. He is hard, relentless, uncompromising. A couple of things jar us right away. One is his relationship with Walter Brennan. In the earlier scenes they seemed to be partners of a kind. Now the status has changed dramatically. Brennan is now just the cook for the huge ranch. To him, the John Wayne character is now “Mr. Dunson”. The gulf between them now seems huge. Second, Dunson’s new ruthlessness becomes apparent when we see him brand cows belonging to other ranches that have gotten mixed up with his herd — an expediency of unqualified moral dubiousness. Its just plain theft. The meat of the story seems influenced by Mutiny on the Bounty. Dunson as the cruel Captain Bly figure. Matt as the Fletcher Christian figure or the Brutus. Eventually Matt ousts Dunson, who vows revenge — and tries to get it. It was Hawks’ trusting of this serious part to Wayne that convinced Ford to start devising much better roles for him.


The Big Sky (1953) 

A rather tedious and rambling film in my book. Seems calculated to replicate the success of Red River but lacks that central, focused human story. It’s just a succession of adventures, which, to me, at least, is boring without decent characters and relationships. As Red River was theoretically about the last cattle drive on the Chisholm trail, this one is about the first trip upriver on the Missouri. Set in 1832, it is full of some cool historical details that are good fodder for something, but don’t add up to much here. Chiefly that, thirty years after the Louisiana Purchase, French influence is still dominant in this part of the country. (It prompted me to go the map: you find this really cool stripe of French names going up the middle of the country: New Orleans, Baton Rouge,St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Dubuque, Des Moines, etc).

In this story, two guys meet up in the woods of western Kentucky: Kirk Douglas, and some other guy (Dewey Martin). They decide to hook up with the other guy’s uncle in St. Louis. They look all over the place and can’t find him. Then they are thrown in jail for drunkenly carousing, and coincidentally find him in the same hoosegow. He is played by Arthur Hunnicutt, the best role I’ve seen him do. They get work going on this boat upriver to trade furs with the Blackfeet. Their insurance is a beautiful Blackfoot maid. The rest of the crew are all Frenchmen, and one Indian half-wit. Since these characters are all afforded the respect Hollywood usually gives to foreigners, the only characters we are expected to care about are Hunnicutt, Douglas, and Martin, and there really is no conflict between them. It’s all Indian fights, and rapids, and battles with the fur company. In short, the film deserves its present obscurity.

And what a dumb title! If the movie had at least been in color, we could contemplate the blueness of this “Big Sky”. But anyway, what’s the sky got to do with this picture? Big River would have made a great deal more sense.


Rio Bravo (1959)

In essence this is Howard Hawks’s last truly great film. The next one, the African safari picture Hatari (1962) is okay, but badly dated, and his last two westerns El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970) give diminishing returns.

Rio Bravo isn’t perfect either, but what it lacks in formal perfection it makes up for in chemistry. This is the ultimate multi-generational male bonding picture, with Wayne as a sheriff, Dean Martin as his alcoholic deputy, Walter Brennan as his old, gimpy other deputy and Ricky Nelson as a kid named “Colorado”, a hired gun who comes in to help out when his boss Ward Bond is murdered. Angie Dickinson is Wayne’s naughty love interest, so all the bonding isn’t male (really, without her the picture would be downright gay).

Claude Akins is a bad guy whom Wayne has placed in the pokey. The bulk of the movie is spent in preparation for a showdown with Akins gang, which is going to come free him. The easiest thing for Wayne to do would be to let his prisoner go free. But well, he’s the Duke. He just can’t do that. The majority of the film is about the tension of waiting for the big showdown, with our small handful of heroes hunkered down in the tiny jail, waiting for an army of bad guys to ride in.

And while they wait, they have conversations. This is the aspect its hard to have patience with. To the modern sensibility it feels way too talky, the film feels downright padded with talk. I’ve heard it said that Hawks was responding to the challenge of television and its more intimate aesthetics. TV, with its smaller screen is much more dialogue based than cinema. A lot of the dialogue feels sparkling and magical, and kind of the capper on the Hawksian tradition of playful screen banter, but I still find myself wanting to snip about a half hour out.

At any rate, can these four dudes and one lady (each with their own vulnerabilities) take on ten times their number and emerge victorious? What do you think?


El Dorado (1967)

One of Hawks’ last pictures. It’s about two warring ranchers, one of whom is an evil cattle baron played by Ed Asner. John Wayne is a hired gun. On the advice of his old friend the sheriff (Mitchum) he decides not to work for Asner. On his way back, he accidentally shoots the young son of the neighbor. In retaliation, the daughter shoots Wayne. The bullet lodges near the spine, threatening paralysis. Wayne leaves for a time (to Mexico), where he hooks up with one “Mississippi” (James Caan) who is adept with knives, but can’t shoot. They hear that Mitchum has become a drunk, and Asner has hired some very bad killers. Wayne and Caan ride back to help the sheriff.

We are now at the very same formula that made a success of Rio Bravo. In fact, it’s almost exactly identical to that earlier picture. Asner gets thrown into jail and the bad guys are going to spring him (just like in Rio Bravo). And we have the same quartet of good guys. A drunk (now Mitchum as a sheriff, instead of Dean Martin as a deputy), John Wayne, a kid (now James Caan instead of Ricky Nelson), and the sidekick — here an old Indian fighter (Arthur Hunnicutt) in buckskin and carrying a bugle, instead of Walter Brennan. The movie sort of unravels and becomes dull. Lots of business about trying to sober up the sheriff. Lots of shoot outs. But Wayne’s paralysis keeps kicking in, gumming up the works. The end looks hopeless (Mitchum has been shot, too), but they manage to pull it off anyway.


Rio Lobo (1970)

This is the last movie Howard Hawks directed and the law of diminishing returns applies. The first act is okay:  John Wayne is a civil war colonel on the Union side. A gold shipment he is responsible for is stolen off a train by a band of Confederates (the train heist is fascinating and the best part of the picture). Wayne chases them down, is kidnapped by them and then ingeniously tricks them into getting near his own troops, freeing himself, and taking their officers prisoner. Then the war is over.

Now the film just gets to be bad.  It’s just a bad, rambling screenplay. Wayne and those Confederates have developed a mutual respect, even a rapport. He enlists two of them to help him locate the Union traitors in his unit who had helped the Confederates (and killed his young lieutenant). The trail leads to Rio Lobo, Texas. Coincidentally, these bad guys are now involved with a crooked sheriff and a  rapacious cattle baron. There are three nearly identical but absolutely gorgeous damsels in distress, all of whom are terrible actors. (although one them is nearly topless in one scene, one of the few modern touches in the film, along with the close up of a hand playing a guitar in the opening credits).  Jack Elam is an ornery guy who holds out against the cattle baron. As in Hawks’ previous films, there are endless, aimless scenes of people waiting, talking, wondering what to do, then planning what to do without much conviction about the outcome. There is no mystery to it. For the third time in a row in a western (Rio Bravo, El Dorado), he has a scene of John Wayne and his group of friends barricaded in a jailhouse. (what is it with this?). Interesting trivia: George Plimpton is an extra in this movie.


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