Old Mrs Jack and old Jack, back in late 1970, wandering the paranoid highs and lows of America, had caught its self-flagellation in Little Big Man (1970). Okay, so that packed a bit of a punch. Rio Lobo, out the same week, packed another kind. Where one seemed to disdain American history, the other cast a cooler, prouder, clumsily understanding eye upon it. With a ton of lousy actors so pretty I wanted to see them shot. With a story told by Howard Hawks several times before. With a star – John Wayne – lending a properly poor film undue dignity.
To be honest, I was irritated by my first viewing. It has a fantastic start – genuinely great fun – as the American Civil War grinds to an end. Rebs in beige rob a train guarded by the Duke’s troops in yellow ribbons. There’s a clever trap laid – the beige boys jump on the train, shove hornets into a carriage full of gold, and drag the thing to a messy halt through ropes and trees. The boys in blue having long jumped off, Wayne and co. charge along – beautifully filmed – chasing the train and the thieves beyond. They split up and the Duke – Colonel Cord McNally – unwisely rides along a river until he hits upon the gang. A smack in the head and he awakes in a cave, surrounded and oddly good-humoured…
Then it all goes to pot.
A decade later, the film didn’t make it that far on BBC1. Old Jack still flinches as Wayne and co. march along in their finest blue as – that night – Rio Lobo cut out in favour of the live shots of the relief of the Iranian Embassy. And that was wholly arresting. Real lives, real deaths, an essential act…
Which is the moment the film turns from exciting adventure with just possibly a hint of unionist vs confederate rage into…pap. McNally carries a determination to get the man who sold the secret of the payroll on the train, but does so by becoming great buddies with the men who captured him. To be fair, this is as the war ends, so you’d expect a bit of rapprochement. This is a John Wayne film, and the undercurrent of decency in America outweighs anything that feels like natural emotion. So…okay.
What to say about the rest of this? I don’t really know-
Oh! Turns out I did know.
You know those episodes of TV shows where there’s a handover in the cast? Old hands persist, but the original youths have played brinksmanship on the contracts and lost. In walk the crappy new folk: you don’t like them, you know the shark is jumped and the series is dead, and the only joy is watching the old guy do his thing. Rio Lobo turns into that.
The Duke is terrific. Theres a touch of the lessons of Rooster Cogburn as crazily beautiful young women cuddle up and call him ‘comfortable’. An affront to his cheery ageing dignity (one of them is Sherry Lansing, so a possible career move well played had Wayne seen the 1980s), it places him in the friendly old soul mode whilst also being John-Wayne-of-all-those-cowboy-films.
Christopher Mitchum is in the mix as well, all blonde highlights and sprightly energy.
The rest? Give it some due, the characters are written like someone got the point of the 1960s. There are smarts, sass, feist and other words for self-possession (Lansing gets the final kill, before Duke makes her comfortable), but the acting. Oh dear. Lansing just about gets away with being a soul dreadfully wounded and driving herself back to agency. But Jennifer O’Neill as Shasta and Jorge Rivero as Cordona…wow. That much posing, fine bodies through shaped clothes, pretty faces with nary an emotion that convinces, one-liners wildly misplaced, chemistry unknown – just so difficult to watch.
It pains old Jack to say this, but Rio Lobo isn’t worth your effort once the ropes hold the train to the trees. There are asides, fights and twists that give the Duke some valid moments. Richard Donner, Jim Davis (really, practically loose in his scene) and mostly the glorious Jack Elam nearly…nearly fix things. But no – a film that should have stayed with the seniors repeatedly indulges incompetent youth. And is rubbish for doing so.
Go to Amazon Prime for the first half hour. Then eat cakes. Then watch the Iranian embassy clip.
Or give the music a go…