Monday, November 15, 2010

TV Bites: Rio Bravo

Green Chile Mac & Cheese

I've been aching to feature a Western and there are so many to choose from that I love, but I decided to start with this one first. It has been so influential for decades (see below) and is often considered to be amongst one of the most entertaining films ever made. Some may argue it's not even a true Western, but a Western-Comedy. If you've never seen it, go to it immediately.

Another thing to note is that it was released the same year, 1959, as Some Like it Hot, which was featured last month here in TV Bites.

Rio Bravo will be screening on TCM on Dec 22 @ 10:15PM/EST and is available on Demand @ Amazon as well as rentable from Netflix.


Wheeler: "A game-legged old man and a drunk? That's all you got?"
Chance: "That's what I got."

British film critic Robin Wood once wrote, "If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be 'Rio Bravo.'"

American film critic Charles Taylor, in response to Wood's perhaps hyperbolic comment, offered his own, "If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the idea of America, it would be Rio Bravo."

Howard Hawks directed three westerns in the latter days of his career (it's amazing to consider that Hawks was already an accomplished director of silent films in the late 1920's): Rio Bravo in 1959, El Dorado in 1966, and Rio Lobo in 1970. Some consider this a "trilogy," while others say he simply remade the same film 3 times with slight variations.

Hawks denied they were the same film, but I think he's on thin ice. He said, "I never remade Rio Bravo, I stole from Rio Bravo.... If a film director has a story that he likes but when he looks at it again he thinks he can do it better, he'll do it again, but in a different way.... I said to my writer [Leigh] Brackett who had worked on Rio Bravo, 'We had a boy who was a very good gunman in Rio Bravo, so let's have a boy who can't shoot at all in El Dorado.' So that wasn't the same, was it?"

"And in Rio Bravo, Wayne was the sheriff, and his deputy was the drunk," he continued. "In El Dorado, Mitchum was the sheriff AND he was the drunk, and the deputy was stone-cold sober. So we changed a lot. We did everything by opposites. There is a similarity, but that comes in style. I think people who say there is a connection between the two stories of Rio Bravo and El Dorado haven't actually seen both films."

Contradicting Hawks' memory (or rationalization) is Leigh Brackett's side of the story. Brackett, one of the great women screenwriters of all time, mostly wrote all three films. Interviewed about being brought in to do El Dorado, she said, "I wrote the best script I have ever written and Howard liked it, the studio like it, Wayne liked it, and I was delighted. We didn't make it, because he decided to go back and do Rio Bravo again. It could have been called The Son of Rio Bravo Rides again."

Robert Mitchum said this on the subject: "It's a case of making a successful formula and jumping on your own bandwagon. Normally, it's the other directors who jump on the bandwagon, but Howard's the only guy I know who jumps on his own."

While John Wayne was, of course, set to play the lead from the start, the part of Dude was up for grabs. Some considered for the role included Montgomery Clift, John Cassavetes, Richard Widmark, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, James Cagney and Cary Grant. Warners was pushing for Cagney. Martin's agent wanted a meeting with his client which Hawks set for 9:30AM. Martin flew in from Vegas, looking ragged and apologizing because he had performed that night and chartered a plane first thing in the morning to come to the meeting. Hawks was impressed and thought that if Martin would go to those lengths to get the part, he would do the work needed for the part.

Angie Dickinson reflected on her getting the role saying it was Hawk's friend Christian Nyby (who edited Red River and helmed Hawk's production of The Thing) who put in the good word for her. "[Hawks] screen tested me, but what got me the screen test was Chris Nyby.... Chris had run into Howard and he said, I just worked with this girl on the Perry Mason television show, and you ought to take a look at her if you’re going to cast an unknown again. Because that was Howard’s nature to do. So he said, 'Send her over.' I went for the meeting and was told I would do the screen test and I won the part."

"He was authoritarian in a gentler way," she continued. "He knew what he wanted, but he didn’t want to tell you what it was. He wanted to get the feel for what it was. So therefore, it would come out of you, no him. He did it very slyly: 'Now, what about if this time you cry?' And I said, oh, where? And he said, 'You figure that out!' That’s what happened with the last scene. I wasn’t getting it until he suggested I cry. And that nailed it."

For me, it's a tough call of preferring one version over the other. In my ideal world I wish I could take bits of both and meld them together. (Rio Lobo is the weakest of them all and we won't even discuss it.) Now I prefer Mitchum (El Dorado) over Dean Martin (Rio Bravo) depending on my mood, but would absolutely rather have Angie Dickenson & Walter Brennan (Rio Bravo) over Charlene Holt & Arthur Hunnicutt (El Dorado). I so like that the Duke has that hand/spinal injury in El Dorado - that touch of vulnerability really fills in his character. Also, I wouldn't really miss the singing in Rio Bravo, but while I'm not crazy about Ricky Nelson (Rio Bravo) I prefer him over James Caan (El Dorado). But often when trying to recollect which film is which or parts of them I get them jumbled up, like in the movie Get Shorty with Delroy Lindo (Bo) and John Travolta (Chili)....

BO CATLETT: Only this time, no John Wayne and Dean Martin shooting the bad guys in El Dorado.
CHILI: It was Rio Bravo. Robert Mitchum was the drunk in El Dorado, Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, practically the same part. John Wayne, he also did the same thing in both. He played John Wayne.
BO CATLETT: Man, I can't wait for you to be dead.

But being that Rio Bravo is such a great story, it's not only been remade by Hawks, but by lots of people since. A quick roll call of films which beg, borrow & steal from it include: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 & 2005), The Nest (basically a French version of Assault), CopLand (director Mangold takes bits from El Dorado as well), even Night of the Living Dead. Basically any film where a group of unlikely heroes are forced together in a small enclosed place and have to battle a force outside who are trying to get in that place will have references to Rio Bravo, I promise.


So, rather than just being able to enjoy Rio Bravo as a great Western, we are forced to consider its place as a footnote in the political debate of post-WWII America from the moment it was conceived. Why? Well, Hawks & Wayne were inspired to make Rio Bravo over their disgust and outrage of a perceived "message" in Stanley Kramer's equally classic High Noon which some people have interpreted as a "pro-communist" story. Why? Because Carl Foreman, the screenwriter, had at one time been a member of the Communist Party and then quit and then was called up by the House Un-American Committee to name names and refused and was then blacklisted for some time and fled to England. (John Wayne said, "I'll never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country." But then immediately back-pedaled and said he wasn't directly involved, but was just glad he left the US then.)

Okay, screenwriter Carl Foreman, who before High Noon, wrote a bunch of films including Spooks Run Wild for the Bowery Boys (clearly about a communist collective who triumph over authority figures), Home of the Brave (a story about an heroic black soldier, civil rights=communism), and Young Man with a Horn (jazz=communism). Later he made other pro-communist films like The Bridge Over the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone (both movies also about groups working together to overcome an enemy, obviously pro-communist themes).

Yes, I'm being smug and sarcastic. But, for example, this gentleman writes High Noon is "the favorite Western of the cultural elites" (although, he might be referring to AFI's Top Westerns List which places it at #2 between The Searchers & Shane, and oddly has Cat Ballou as #10 - maybe because it stars known-commie-loving Jane Fonda... but I've already covered my thoughts about the usefulness AFI's lists). And so, his dislike for High Noon is directly connected to its "liberal/communist/elitist" message. And it is also noted to be "liberal" Bill Clinton's favorite Western, who enjoyed watching it at the White House and so naturally it must be reviled by his political opposites.

But the folks who want to draw such a connection between Clinton's love for High Noon and his "liberal agenda," neglect to reckon with the fact that it was also Dwight Eisenhower's favorite movie to watch in the White House. Film critic Kyle Smith writes that viewed today, to him, the film's message is clearly conservative, not liberal. In fact, the National Review ranked it #57 of the "Best Conservative Movies" in 1994. And finally, President GW Bush presented a High Noon poster to the Japanese prime minister after the two had bonded over their love of the movie. So which is it? Anti-American or Pro-American? Liberal or Conservative?

John Wayne was really quite upset over his reading of the film. In this famous 1971 Playboy interview he ranted: "Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin wrote some great music for it and because Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly were in it. So it's got everything going for it. In that picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff. He goes to the church and asks for help and the guys go, 'Oh well, oh gee.' And the women stand up and say, 'You're rats. You're rats. You're rats.' So Cooper goes out alone. It's the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ole Coop putting the United States marshal's badge under his foot and stepping on it." (Note: the stepping with the foot thing is NOT in High Noon.)

And Hawks, also a staunch conservative, noted that, "I saw High Noon.... I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help. And who helps him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western.... [Rio Bravo] was the exact opposite from High Noon." Though a card shark, a drunk and an old cripple were acceptable help?

In a documentary made about High Noon, Bill Clinton, I think, answers the question: “Any time you’re alone and you feel you’re not getting the support you need, Cooper’s Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor.” It's a very flexible story line.

So in conclusion, it could be said, that we have Karl Marx to thank for the great Rio Bravo....


I had discovered a recipe apparently first published in the Los Angeles Times for a Green Chile-Cheese Casserole attributed to John Wayne. It has been republished many times, including the San Francisco Chronicle, and in one of the celebrity cookbooks I have here. But the thing of it is, it's really just a big mess of cheese and some canned green chiles and egg mixed in. It may have been given to Wayne by a chef on a location truck once because he loved it so much, according to a person quoted in the SF Chronicle. Versions on the Interwebs, sometimes have a couple of tomato slices tossed on top, sometimes not. Feel free to make this for yourself, but I hope the Duke won't roll over in his grave because I felt like using it as a start rather than a finish. And so... green chile macaroni & cheese casserole.

Pretty much from the moment there was both pasta & cheese on the planet Earth, someone got the bright idea of sprinkling cheese on some noodles. Who that first someone was, who knows? And the identity of the first person to do it in America is also lost to history. But the most famous person to first enjoy it was President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson might be the first American foodie, but he is certainly the first American "junk food" lover, as he is credited for bringing and popularizing three quintessential comfort foods back from his European adventures: french fries, ice cream, and, yes, mac & cheese. (He also liked pickles.)

Another famous cowboy actor, and also US President, Ronald Reagan, loved him some mac & cheese - here's his recipe. (Have you noticed I've referenced 5 Presidents in this post?) While Kraft (beware, website is very noisy!) introduced their boxed version in 1937 (known in Canada as "Kraft Dinner" and in the UK as "Cheesy Pasta"), Americans really got hooked on it during WWII, since meat and other staples were rationed and, as it remains today, mac & cheese is synonymous with cheap & filling.

And how can I not mention the world's largest mac & cheese casserole?

The inspiration for this recipe originally comes from one served up the block from me at the Roaring Fork chain restaurant. Their whole pitch is making upscale "Old West" food, so it's keeping with the whole theme, agreed? Now here's the recipe from the Roaring Fork, BUT - IACP-winning cookbook author Susan S. Bradley claims the recipe doesn't match that which she ate at the restaurant and came up with her own version. So to end this tale, what I decided is to adapt Bradley's recipe a bit as it seemed to match the one at Roaring Fork pretty good but still not the way they served it to me the other night. The waiter told me they keep tweaking the recipe. Either way, worthy I hope, of the Duke. As always... cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Green Chile Mac & Cheese
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 8-10

1 pound pasta - small shells, elbow, ziti or similar
1 pound "Mexican Blend" shredded cheese package (mix of Jack, Cheddar, Queso Quesadilla & Asadero Cheese)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup AP Flour
1 cup red, yellow and/or orange bell peppers, seeded and small diced
1/3 cup scallion, (use 2/5ths bottoms left from tops used in the "crema," see below)
salt and pepper, to taste
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs

2 cups heavy cream
6 Anaheim or Hatch green chile peppers, seeded, roasted, and peeled (20-22 ounces)
2 Poblano peppers, seeded, roasted, and peeled
1 medium tomatillo, papery skin removed and chopped (about 3 ounces)
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
5-6 scallions, only the green tops (cut about 3/5ths off the top, see above)
salt, to taste

For the "Crema": Roast peppers on pan until nicely done. Remove. Then, in a saucepan, mix cream, peppers, tomatillo & garlic and simmer for about 4 minutes. Puree in blender with scallions. Salt to taste.

Meanwhile, in a boiling pot of salted water, cook pasta till a few minutes from being done (pasta will continue to cook a bit more when baking in sauce and you don't want it turning to mush), drain, and rinse with cold water, then reserve.

In a saucepan, sauté bell peppers and scallions in butter until a little softened, then add flour and stir (don't let brown). Slowly pour "crema" in, whisking to blend and thicken. Keep simmering and whisking for a couple of minutes. Season with salt & pepper to taste.

Now mix pasta, cheeses & sauce together in a casserole dish, sprinkling with bread crumbs. Bake in preheated oven @ 350* for about 30-40 minutes until done. If desired, broil for a minute to brown topping before serving.

TCM's Rio Bravo Page
Clip 1 - Documentary on Rio Bravo
Clip 2 - Documentary on Rio Bravo
Clip 3 - Documentary on Rio Bravo
NY Times critic AO Scott on Rio Bravo
Salon critic Charles Taylor on Rio Bravo
Playboy Interview: John Wayne
Rio Bravo, Still Popular & Hip At 50, Wall St. Journal
What the Big Deal? High Noon, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Rio Bravo (Two DVD Disc Special Edition)
Rio Bravo, Ricky Nelson CD
John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, by Michael Munn
Howard Hawks, by Robin Wood
Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy
Blacklisted: The Film Lover's Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist, by Dave Wagner & Paul Buhle

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