Rio Lobo (1970)
“Give ‘Em Hell, John.”
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: John Wayne, Jorge Rivero, Jennifer O’Neill
Synopsis: After the Civil War, Cord McNally searches for the traitor whose perfidy caused the defeat of McNally’s unit and the loss of a close friend.
John Wayne’s health was already faltering when he made Rio Lobo. He was 63-years-old, but looked much older and he has about him the air of a man who knows he should care but is struggling to work up the enthusiasm to do so. He’s a pale imitation of the man who used to stride across the screen with the studied nonchalance of one who feels like he owns it. The film is like that, too. It’s a pale imitation of El Dorado, which was itself a kind of bastard child of Rio Bravo. All three of those movies were directed by Howard Hawks, and by 1970 he too was showing his age. Rio Lobo would, in fact, be the last movie he made before his death in 1977, and it’s a sadly pedestrian effort.
Wayne plays Cord McNally who, during the dying days of the American Civil War, has his unit’s shipment of gold ingeniously robbed from a train by a ragtag bunch of Confederates desperate for finances to keep the war going. The robbery is the highlight of the movie. It makes the Rebs look pretty resourceful, while Wayne and his guys come off looking a little shamefaced. McNally is stung badly enough to go after the Confederates, but gets himself captured by them instead. He doesn’t seem too bothered about it, considering their robbery resulted in the paralysis of one of his best friends; he smiles amiably at his captors, who are led by Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivera).
Fortunes soon change, however, and it’s not long before Cordona and his sidekick Tuscarora (Chris Mitchum) find themselves holed up in a Yankee prison for the duration. Following the end of hostilities, however, McNally is dead set on finding the men in his old unit who must have leaked the information about the shipment of gold to the Rebels, and enlists the aid of Cordona (aka Frenchy) and Tuscarora to track them down. It’s not long before they find the rogues in the small Texan town of Rio Lobo. One of them quickly comes a cropper, but the other, an unpleasant man named Ketcham (Victor French) has taken control of the town with the aid of crooked sheriff Hendricks (Mike Henry). There’s a few women involved in all of this as well, chief of whom is Shasta Delaney (Jennifer O’Neill).
Rio Lobo is one of those movies that really should be a lot better than it is, given the talent in front of, and behind, the camera. There’s Wayne and Hawks, of course, but there’s also Leigh Brackett who, as well as writing both Rio Bravo and El Dorado, also penned The Big Sleep. It has all the ingredients, but they’re all a little stale. Wayne was too old to be romancing twenty-something leading ladies, so the character of Frenchy steps forward to take the reins, which inevitably means that Wayne receives less screen time than he otherwise would have done. The name of Rivera will probably be an unfamiliar one to most people, and there’s a good reason for that — he’s not a very good actor. Having said that, the ‘performance’ of Jennifer O’Neill is so mind-blowingly bad that she makes Rivera look like Olivier at times. It really is incredible to believe that a performance this poor can be found in a high-profile studio movie like Rio Lobo. Hawks was pretty verbal in blaming her for the film’s failure, but that was nothing more than misdirection on the old boy’s part. It wouldn’t have mattered who was in the role — the movie would still have been a dud.
(Reviewed 20th July 2013)