“Rio Lobo,” which turned out to be Howard Hawks very last picture, represents his weakest collaboration with John Wayne’. Hawks and Wayne had previously made thee terrific films, “Red River,” “Hatari!” and “Rio Bravo,” and one mediocre, “El Dorado.”
Hawks described the special relationship he had with Wayne in the following way: “For Rio Lobo, I called him up and said, ‘Duke, I’ve got a story.’ He said, ‘I can’t make it for a year, I’m all tied up.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s all right, it’ll take me a year to get it finished.’ He said, ‘Good, I’ll be ready.’ And he came down on location and he said, ‘What’s this about’ And I told him the story. He never even read it. He didn’t know anything about it.” Wayne confirmed this story: “I just ask the director which hat he wants me to wear and which door I come in.”
But this implicit, almost-blind, faith in Hawks had its price: many critics felt Wayne’s talent was misused in “Rio Lobo,” a much weaker Western than either “Rio Bravo” or “El Dorado,” which form sort of a trilogy.
Based on a screenplay by Hawks’ frequent writer Leigh Brackett and Burton Wohl, from a story by Wohl, the film is set right after the Civil War. Wayne plays Union Captain Colonel Cord McNally, who teams up with two Confederate soldiers, Captain Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivera) and Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum) to find Ketcham (Victor French), the man responsible for stealing a shipment of gold and is now a greedy land baron, who controls the land and the law.
Their mission brings to a town that’s being terrorized by the corrupt Sheriff Hendricks (Mike Henry). Rallying the town’s people behind them, insisting that they should stand up for their civil rights, Wayne and his aides terminate the nasty sheriff’s tyranny.
This being a Hawks film means that his recurrent motifs, male courage and male camaraderie, are in evidence, here in the relationships between Wayne and his Confederate troops. “Rio Lobo”’s cast included such unknown or inexperienced actors in leading parts as Jorge Rivero, Victor French, and Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert Mitchum, who co-starred with Wayne in “Rio Lobo”).
Perhaps a reflection of the changing times, women play more important roles in “Rio Lobo” than in previous Hawks-Wayne Westerns. For one thing, there are three of them, though none gives a decent performance. Shasta Delaney (Jennifer O’Neill), a young and beautiful woman, is attracted to Captain Cordona, but likes Wayne’s company; at night, she snuggles up against him for security. When Wayne suggests that she might do better with Cordona, she replies, “He’s too young, but you’re older, more comfortable.”
At the end of the film, Cordona and Tuscarora go off with their women and Wayne, left alone, turns to Amelita (Sherry Lansing, who would become the first female president of a Hollywood studio, Fox, in 1982, and then run Paramount for over a decade), whose face had been disfigured by the villains. The film implies that these duos settle for each other because no one else will have them. Wayne has become a comfortable old man, relinquishing his pursuit of young attractive women.