Song And Vision No. 3: "My Rifle, My Pony, And Me" and Rio Bravo
Along with being one of my favorite filmmakers Quentin Tarantino is also one of my favorite film critics. It's a shame Tarantino has never written a book (or, better, maintained a movie blog), because I love reading interviews where he talks about movies and shares his obsessively observed cinematic theories. He not only turned me on to a lot of movies I'd probably never would have heard of otherwise during my formative years, he gave me a whole new way of looking at film, which is the highest compliment you can give a critic.
Perhaps Tarantino's greatest act of film criticism–aside from re-imagining the crime movie with Pulp Fiction, of course–was coming up with the "hangout movie" genre. A hangout movie is a movie where you get to know the characters so well that they, in a sense, become your friends. Because they tend to be leisurely paced and padded with scenes that don't further the story in any way, plot tends to be secondary–though not necessarily unimportant–in a hangout movie. The great thing about a hangout movie is how they get better upon repeat viewings. Once you know the plot you can ignore it and get down to enjoying the pleasure of the characters' company. It's the scenes that seemed annoyingly long-winded or detrimental to the pacing the first time around that keep you coming back, because it's these scenes that allow the characters to step outside the storytelling mechanics for a sec and simply be.
One of Tarantino's favorite movies, Dazed And Confused, is a hangout movie. Tarantino's own Jackie Brown is another. I'd add MASH, American Graffiti, Before Sunrise, and The Dirty Dozen to my own list of beloved hangout movies. The best hangout movie ever, according to Tarantino, is Howard Hawks' 1959 western Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson. If Rio Bravo was just two hours of these actors sitting in a room and talking, it would still be the best hangout movie ever. That there's also a classic story that's been ripped off countless times since–a ragtag team of misfits fends off a group of thugs to deliver a man to justice–is gravy. I could explain what makes Rio Bravo the definitive entry in this made-up genre, but why not let Tarantino do it via some shakily filmed footage from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival:
Appropriately enough for a hangout movie, the most memorable scene in Rio Bravo is also the most extraneous. As our own Keith Phipps pointed out in his review of its DVD re-release last year, most of Rio Bravo consists of waiting around for the big gunfight that will inevitably conclude the movie. So, there's a lot of time to sit around, hang out, and, hey, maybe even play a song or two. What, two of these gunslingers also happen to be among the era's biggest pop stars? Somebody get them a guitar! Here's Martin and Nelson (with Brennan on harmonica) doing a jailhouse duet on "My Rifle, My Pony, And Me," while various bad guys lurk about outside, looking to bust in.
There's an obvious difference between the "My Rifle, My Pony, And Me" scene in Rio Bravo and the other scenes we've covered so far (and will cover later on) in "Song And Vision." "My Rifle, My Pony, And Me" is not playing in the background, subtly adding another layer of subtext to the scene. It's front and center and performed by the actors, with no apparent deeper meaning beyond the pure enjoyment of watching them. I don't think the actors are even supposed to be in character here. We're not meant to see Dude and Colorado, we're meant to see Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, and bask in the effervescent glow emanating from their collective star power. "When you've got some talent, your job is to use it," Hawks said of the scene, deflecting criticism he was being self-indulgent with his stars by shoehorning an unnecessary musical number into a western. Of course Hawks was being self-indulgent. Why would Hawks let a little thing like plot get in the way of giving the audience pleasure? Hawks understood a simple truism many film fans disregard: there are thousands of good actors in the world, but only so many genuine stars. Martin and Nelson hold their own as actors, but they are natural born, effortless, mega-watt personalities, and most of the people who paid to see Rio Bravo wanted to see them sing, possibly together, on a larger-than-life movie screen. Tarantino did something similar in Pulp Fiction when he got John Travolta back on the dance floor for the famous "You Never Can Tell" twist contest scene. Could Tarantino have skipped this scene without missing a beat in the Vincent Vega/Mia Wallace story? Certainly, but we would have lost out on a few minutes of movie magic. And some things, like seeing Travolta dance again, must take precedence over plot.
As Danny Peary writes in Cult Movies, Hawks prided himself on recycling elements from his previous work, again and again. (The most blatant examples being his final two films, 1967's El Dorado and 1970's Rio Lobo, which are retreads of Rio Bravo,) For his big star-worshipping moment in Rio Bravo, Hawks re-used a piece of music originally written by the great Ukrainian film composer Dimitri Tiomkin for 1948's Red River. Then lyrics were added by Paul Francis Webster, a 16-time Oscar nominee and three-time winner who also wrote "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing" and the Spider-Man theme song.
It wasn't until I was writing this column and repeatedly watching the "My Rifle, My Pony, And Me" scene that I realized what the song is about: death. Before I just got lost in the joy of the performance and overlooked the beautifully dour lyrical imagery, which now seems head-slappingly obvious: the sun is setting in the west and there's a canyon bathed in purple light, and the narrator wants to spend a life (or afterlife) there without any cares or worries. But if "My Rifle, My Pony, And Me" is a death song it's not depressing in the slightest. It's soothingly peaceful, delivered with the assurance of men who have decided, together, to make imminent death a real possibility. Which is another way of saying that the scene is actually much more important to Rio Bravo that it might initially appear. Setting aside the plot for a few moments, Hawks got down to telling the movie's story in this scene.
"My Rifle, My Pony, And Me" is really just a generous, roundabout way of saying "Just Me"–the narrator actually counts himself twice--but no one is alone in Rio Bravo. Like all hangout movies, Rio Bravo is about the importance of our personal relationships and how they carry us through even (or especially) when we think we don't need or want to be. As viewers we return to Rio Bravo again and again because we either like to reminded of our own valued relationships or we need to be reminded that such relationships are still possible. We all want someone like John T. Chance in our lives, but if we don't have him, we can still have the actual John T.
You can't feel lonely watching Rio Bravo, just as you can't feel lonely when the person next to you–even a stranger–knows the same song. Sometimes when I'm watching Rio Bravo I think about how Dean Martin, like most hard-working, old school Americans his age, hated rock 'n' roll. Here's ol' Dean doing his infamously condescending introduction of The Rolling Stones during their American TV debut on The Hollywood Palace in 1964. (Look for the quip about low foreheads and high eyebrows at the 3:42 mark.)
Ricky Nelson is a far cry from The Rolling Stones, of course, but it warms my heart a little whenever I see show-biz veteran Martin cue the young, upstart teen idol Nelson into "My Rifle, My Pony, And Me" with a gentle flick of his cigarette and doffing of his cowboy hat. It's a small gesture that sums up a lot of what I love about Rio Bravo, and the communal feeling you get from a shared musical experience. Music often connects us to people we never thought we'd want to be connected with. Dean Martin influenced Elvis Presley (see "Love Me Tender") and Elvis influenced Ricky Nelson (see pretty much every song he ever did). As a result, Martin and Nelson will make sense singing together in Rio Bravo for as long as movies exist. I think back to Travis Bickle bonding with Jackson Browne right before going on a murderous rampage, the music holding him back from the darkness for a few moments, and I see a more hopeful version of this scene in Rio Bravo. When it comes to hanging out, that's where I long to be.