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Male Vulnerability in Rio Bravo

The portrayal of masculinity within western films is one, more often than not, wrought with toxicity. “The western is by definition a masculine genre; or, we should say, by redefinition. Whereas its paraphernalia can to some extent vary, its top icon remains the strong, solitary cowboy” (De Biasio 2014). But Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo from 1959 has a far less toxic portrayal through the use of music during the most chaotic part of the film. This film follows Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) and his band of misfits as they endure the Burdettes and their shenanigans. Howard Hawks pays close attention to professionalism, an all-male group versus an outside force, and male vulnerability. These three standards of a “Hawksian” film are illustrated perfectly in the scene where three of the characters, Dude (Dean Martin), Stumpy (Walter Brannen), and Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) all sing two songs with Chance standing morosely in the background.

"My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" being performed by Ricky Nelson

The scene begins with Dude singing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” with his hat tipped over his head in a relaxed state. As he sings, the camera zooms out to show that Colorado is playing his guitar along with Stumpy and his harmonica. The song gets passed around from Dude to Colorado in a professional manner as well as a harmonious feeling between all the men. There is a truly strong sense of camaraderie between everyone. The camera flashes over to Chance slightly zoomed out, whilst paying meticulous attention to the songs. This interlude comes in the midst of the Burdette plot, but it is an innocent scene that illustrates the men’s relationship. They are friends and they can bond over music, even with Stumpy who requests that they sing another song that he knows just so he can join in.

It is during this scene that John T. Chance is able to figure out that they should take shelter in the jail as the Burdettes will not end up rushing the jail, which shows that these men are really against an outside force, especially as they are literally inside and safe from the Burdettes. Music is often pegged to be a universal language and it is definitely a unifying force in this instance. Each man gets time in the camera’s limelight, and they know that they are against the force of the other men, but they are not going to let it consume their every waking worry. While Dude and Colorado are singing with Stumpy, Chance looks on and takes the audience out of the suspense of the chase and gives everyone a sense of peace. This is different than most westerns and lends a uniqueness to Howard Hawks’ films. “Male friendship is of course always a major issue in Hawks’s adventure films...and Rio Bravo represents its finest development.” (Wood 59) Portraying the men as people with emotions gives the scene, as well as each of the characters, a sense of agency. Dude and Colorado are the smooth singers that know their way around singing and Stumpy gets to relax from protecting the jail for a while. Even Chance gets to let some of his tough-guy stance drop because he knows that, at that very moment, they are safe. Reveling in it, the music brings them all closer and spurs them on to figure out how to deal with the Burdettes so that they can conquer that force.

Walter Brannen, John Wayne, and Ricky Nelson deep in conversation

Having men be able to maintain a certain sense of professionalism with their jobs, to face an outside force as a group of men united, and to bond and display male vulnerability was something that Rio Bravo was able to capture perfectly in the musical interlude of this movie. Chance, Dude, Colorado, and Stumpy keep a positive and merry environment to relax in and bond with each other over music. This helps them reach a solid plan and learn that they do have each other’s backs no matter what. After this scene, the men show up for each other, especially near the film’s end when Chance is risking it all to save Dude. Stumpy and Colorado show up when the dynamite needs to drop, and they are quick shots as Dude fights for his life successfully. Western films do not always include these elements. For example,

the construction of masculinity: to be a man requires a distinctively male body, as well as certain learned, appropriately male skills. The western’s characteristic eruption of violence occurs as a test for both of these – the body must recover its masculine features, its ability to handle a gun, and the characteristic male response of the western – restraint, taciturnity, endurance (De Biasio 2014);

however, they all work so well together in bringing forth a sense of companionship through songs. Each man finds his moment of happiness that adds to the collective feeling, and, in no time at all, they are assured of how closely they have bonded. Sitting in the jail waiting is by no means the most ideal situation; but incorporating songs and the essence of friendship into the mix is what makes the scene one of the most “Hawksian” of the entire western.


De Biasio, A. (2014). Elisa Bordin, Masculinity and Westerns: Regenerations at the Turn of the New Millennium [Review of Elisa Bordin, Masculinity and Westerns: Regenerations at the Turn of the New Millennium]. European journal of American studies, 6.

dino4ever (2015) "Dean Martin & Ricky Nelson - My Rifle, My Pony & Me/Cindy." [Video] Youtube,

‌Hawks, H. (Director). (1959, April 4). Rio Bravo (D. Tiomkin, Ed.).

Wood, R., & British Film Institute. (2003). Rio Bravo. Bfi Pub.

Image references

Eggert, Brian. (2014). Rio Bravo. [Image] Retrieved from

‌Hawks, H. (Director). (1959, April 4). Rio Bravo (D. Tiomkin, Ed.).


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Alanna Maier

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