“John Wayne presents more force, more power, than anybody else on screen. It’s hard to think of doing a western without him.” - Howard Hawks on John Wayne
The final film that Howard Hawks directed starts with a bang. A group of Confederate soldiers hijack a Union train right under the nose of John Wayne’s Cord McNally. Sadly, the intricate hijacking scheme and immediate aftermath have a kinetic energy that the rest of the film lacks.
Hawks was 73-years old when he made “Rio Lobo.” John Wayne was sixty-three. The four years that had passed since they had worked together had not been kind to the legendary Duke.
“Wayne had a hard time getting on and off his horse,” Hawks later reported, “he can’t move like a big cat the way he used to. He has to hold his belly in; he’s a different kind of person.”
Of course, Hawks himself had changed quite a bit during that time. As he grew older, his patience with young performers grew thinner.
Twenty-three year old Jennifer O’Neill was from a wealthy family. Ever since she was seventeen, she had been making about $100,000 a year. Her acting skills, though, were limited.
As he had done with numerous actresses throughout his career, Hawks tried to mold her acting personality while they were making the picture. O’Neill failed to absorb his lessons to his satisfaction. As he watched the dailies, he became increasing frustrated with her performance and began to call her on-screen presence “dull.” To aggravate him either further, he began to perceive that O’Neill seemed to think she was a star.
In response, Hawks began cutting her part in the picture. He rewrote the picture to give some of the key final scenes to Sherry Lansing.
When Jennifer O’Neill wrote her autobiography “Surviving Myself,” she took some time to take a few pokes at Howard Hawks. She said that when she met Hawks it was obvious that he was “deteriorating fast mentally” and was “a bit senile.”
The disappointed actress was probably being a bit harsh. Filmed interviews with Howard Hawks made several years after “Rio Lobo” was released still show that “the grey fox” was pretty sharp on the draw and retained the wit and charm that earned him his nickname.
That said, “Rio Lobo” does lack the energy and attention to detail that we see in the best of the director’s work. The camera often zooms to clumsily reframe shots and the lighting seems off in just about every frame. One early morning campfire scene seems to take place at high noon. These are not the type of mistakes one expects to see in a Howard Hawks picture.
“Rio Lobo” still has its fans and defenders but even critic Roger Ebert who gave it a positive review with three stars admitted “I’m sorry to say, however, that ‘Rio Lobo’ is just a shade tired…”
Though, Howard Hawks to the end knew how to punch, as he defends the outcome of the film in a 1975 interview with Tony Macklin. Hawks explains, “Rio Lobo was a mistake because they didn’t have the money. We needed two good people. Otherwise my story wasn’t any good. I saved the story and just wrote that damn piece of junk and made it.”
Possibly what had dissipated was not Howard Hawks ability to direct a film, but the quick thinking (one step ahead of everyone else) energy that he had used like a magician for decades to control the behind the scenes power brokers. One reason he could do what he did for so long was his uncanny ability to manipulate the studio heads to do what he wanted. It almost seems ridiculous to blame a director for not being able to do this - ever, let alone in old age.
Howard Hawks had run a long race, jumped many hurdles, and created some of the best loved movies of the Twentieth Century. At the age of seventy-three, he was also getting “a shade tired.” His final film certainly was not his best but the distinguished legacy he left makes it easy to forgive this lesser effort in the sunset moments of his career.
Rio Lobo (1970) Full Movie
Director: Howard Hawks Producer: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Leigh Brackett and Burton Wohl (Story by Burton Wohl) Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Film Editor: John Woodcock
Production Designer: Robert E. Smith
National General Pictures for Cinema Center Films
Rio Lobo - 1970 (Original Poster)
Released: December 17, 1970 Running time 114 minutes
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.