RIO BRAVO was John Wayne’s big return to Westerns after The Searchers and saw The Duke confronted by his much younger female lead, Angie Dickinson. The Feathers star has fond memories of working with the cowboy legend and believes there’s a side to him you don’t normally see in a lot of his movies.
Following John Ford’s The Searchers, John Wayne made an effort to move away from the Western genre, however, the films he made afterwards weren’t particularly well received. Returning to the Wild West with director Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo would be a response to 1952’s High Noon which was seen as an allegory of the Hollywood blacklisting of suspected communists in the film industry. Wayne believed the film to be “un-American” and Hawks disliked how the sheriff ran around asking for help from anyone when in their upcoming movie Duke’s fearless and dutiful lawman would recruit only the most capable people.
Rio Bravo, which also starred Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, saw Wayne’s Texan sheriff arrest a rancher for murder, holding him in jail until the US Marshal arrived. All the while he would be holding off the prisoner’s gang with a drunk, a young gunfighter and a physically disabled man.
The leading lady Feathers was played by Angie Dickinson, who was just 27-years-old opposite the 51-year-old Duke, a romantic age gap that received a negative reaction from some critics.
Now 90-years-old today, she looks back with fondness on working alongside the Hollywood legend, who died in 1979.
Speaking with Culture Map Austin in 2012, she said that the number one reason Rio Bravo holds up decades later is because of John Wayne.
Dickinson said: “It’s one of the roles where he is so different, in that he’s, how can we say, adorable? He’s not defending the fort, so to speak. I think it’s a side of him we didn’t see in a lot of his movies. He’s enjoying this young woman. And while he’s enchanted with her, he’s also adorable with Walter Brennan. And he’s charming and loving with Dean Martin, and with Ricky Nelson. So we see a warmth and a cuteness about him that we don’t see in many of his other movies.”
On playing a strong female lead who confronted Duke’s character in a rare role, she said: “Oh, it was in the writing. The writing is not only underrated but ignored in this movie, because it looks so natural. You forget those words were all written [by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett]. It was romantic. Billy Wilder called Rio Bravo a suspense movie, but the suspense was also there in the romance.”
Dickinson, whose legs were insured by Lloyds of London for publicity when cast, was also asked about the age gap between her and Wayne and if that meant it was hard to convey a credible screen romance.
She said: “No, it never entered my mind. It just didn’t occur to any of us. I think it was a maturity that we all had, that [was] what was most important. The age didn’t matter because we were all mature people. I was never an ingénue.”