Following the box-office success of El Dorado (1967), Hollywood great Howard Hawks reworked the Rio Bravo (1959) scenario once more for his final film, Rio Lobo. During the American civil war, Colonel Cord McNally (John Wayne) - now, there’s a name for a wild west hero! - loses a close friend when Confederate troops led by Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) and Tuscarora Phillips (Christopher Mitchum) hijack a Union Army payroll train. McNally apprehends Pierre and Tuscarora, but bears them no malice once the war is over. The men he wants are the traitors responsible for his friend’s death. Tracked down, the first miscreant “Whitey” (Robert Donner) ambushes McNally, but is shot dead by the feisty Shasta Delaney (Jennifer O’Neill). Thereafter, she tags along, together with Cordona (whose major contribution is repeated attempts to get Shasta in the sack), as they reach the dusty, Texan town of Rio Lobo. Here, McNally discovers the second traitor, Ike Gorman (Victor French) and monstrous Sheriff “Blue Tom” Hendricks (Mike Henry) are bullying ranchers off their land, and enlists Tuscarora, a grizzled rancher (Jack Elam), and beautiful, vengeance-driven Amelita (Sherry Lansing - future head of Paramount Studios!) for the big showdown.
As a last hurrah, Rio Lobo bests John Ford’s Seven Women (1966), but is definitely Hawks’ least distinguished western. The film seemed to be screened almost once a week when this writer was a kid, so I look upon it more fondly than most. The opening raid on the payroll train is brilliantly staged (featuring inspired use of a hornet’s nest), John Wayne swaggers masterfully, with his True Grit (1969) Oscar in his back pocket, Jerry Goldsmith supplies a haunting score, while William H. Clothier’s photography lends a dusky beauty to the saddle-worn tale. However, there is no denying the third act retread of Rio Bravo’s siege storyline is lazy and uninspired. Hawks had simply run out of fresh ways to spin his familiar fable, while fun additions like Jack Elam’s bug-eyed loon and avenging angel Amelita arrive abruptly and too late in the game.
Making the journey much harder to endure are torturously awful performances from Jorge Rivero and Christopher Mitchum, son of Wayne’s iconic El Dorado co-star, Robert Mitchum. These two ride through the movie doing reasonable impersonations of deadwood, while comic, romantic and action scenes collapse in their wake. Mitchum upped his game for Euro-cult oddities like Summertime Killer (1971) and Rico the Mean Machine (1975), but Argentinean born Jorge Rivero maintained his plank-like demeanour throughout a string of Spanish and Italian exploitation movies. Most memorably as a kung fu caveman with biro all over his face in Lucio Fulci’s Conquest (1983). At least Mike Henry doesn’t let the side down as the thoroughly brutish Hendricks who scars Amelita’s pretty face out of sheer spite. Hawks brings a harsher edge to action scenes this time round, oddly focused upon character’s faces as they’re stung, bruised, slashed and blinded by guns backfiring. It doesn’t spoil the jaunty, amiable, Hawksian tone, yet it’s faintly disconcerting watching the Duke beat Victor French - TV’s lovable oaf from Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven - to a bloody pulp.
Rio Lobo was a modest financial success, yet disappointed Hawks acolytes who yearned for one last masterpiece from the great auteur. In interviews, Hawks rather ungallantly blamed all Rio Lobo’s woes on Jennifer O’Neill, whom he felt was miscast. Hard to see why. While awkward in parts, O’Neill is gutsy and appealing as a typically Hawksian dame, able to swing a shotgun or drive men to distraction with her shapely legs. Yet O’Neill is put in the shade by scorching Sherry Lansing, whose sultry senorita repeatedly puts her life on the line, blasts bad guys with aplomb, and strips off for a chaste, though welcome, partial-nude scene. Loving (1970) and Rio Lobo were Lansing’s only film appearances before she grew fascinated with the production side of movie making, went back to college and eventually became the first female CEO of a major Hollywood studio. People make a big deal about Robert Evans, but it was Lansing who steered Paramount through a run of popular hits from the late seventies to the late nineties.
John Wayne shares such a relaxed, amiable screen chemistry with Lansing and O’Neill, the film sparks back to life whenever they’re together. If Hawks really wanted a radical reinterpretation of Rio Bravo, maybe he could have cast the Duke opposite two female gunslingers, with Lansing and O’Neill in the Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson roles. Or was asking too much?