1959’s Rio Bravo, set in a small Texas town in the 1860s, tells the typical western story of a town “under siege.” John Wayne plays Sheriff John Chance, a man who has few allies in his struggle against the wealthy cattle baron Nathan Burdette and his band of outlaws. The trouble begins when Chance arrests Joe Burdette, Nathan’s brother, for the murder of an innocent man. Against the power and aggression of Burdette’s hired guns, Chance has only his former deputy Dude, (a recovering alcoholic), Stumpy, his decrepit, toothless deputy and Colorado, a young and inexperienced newcomer. Prevented from transporting Joe to a more secure prison by Burdette’s band of men, Chance is trapped in town waiting for the U.S. Marshal’s help. Chance encounters numerous problems while waiting for the Marshal and must fend for himself as the Burdette men outnumber him and the body count piles up. The movie comes to a climax as Chance and Burdette face each other in a duel. Chance displays his courage and perseverance in a situation where all the odds are stacked against him.
Cold War Connections and Themes
Often seen as a direct response to the film High Noon, Rio Bravo is full of anti-communist symbolism and “American” themes. High Noon was viewed by John Wayne, who by this time was a fervent anti-communist, as the most “un-American” thing he had ever seen. High Noon’s allegorical plot condemning the “Red Scare” and the communist witch hunt that accompanied it angered Wayne, who believed the portrayal of the sheriff in High Noon was defeatist and weak. John Chance is never caught begging for help like Gary Cooper’s character in High Noon. Chance does not ask for help and originally denies Colorado’s aid simply because he thought it was offered for the wrong reasons. Chance pursues his endeavors confident of the fact that people will soon realize his path is the right one. This idea of lone pursuit of the “right path” is symbolic of American objectives and foreign policy during this time period.
Wayne, through the character of Chance, is also espousing his support for the American policies of not only anticommunism at home, but also the struggle against communist governments abroad. The film portrays the law makers in the town as standing alone against tyrants – a direct metaphor for the United States standing against not only perceived communist threats, but also those countries that didn’t support U.S intervention or interests abroad. John Wayne was an ardent patriot who took deep offense with the un-American ideals espoused in High Noon. Wayne expressed disappointment that the authority figure in High Noon appeared helpless at times, saying that a “real sheriff” wouldn’t run around asking for help, but would rather stand up, just as he expected his country to do when threatened, and ask “How good are you? Are you good enough?” The uniquely American ideals of individualism and perseverance are shown again and again as Chance and his band of underdogs continually prevail against the hostile band of outlaws. These blatantly “American” themes reveal to the contemporary audience the political climate of this time period.
The fact that Rio Bravo is often referred to as a “response” to High Noon is evidence of the high level of importance America placed on the issue of communism in the Cold War era. American domestic and foreign political policy had permeated pop culture, and during this period, the American Western developed as a genre which espoused politically relevant themes, often reflecting the conflicting attitudes of the American people.
John Wayne, American Patriot
During the Cold War John Wayne was a vocal critic of Communism and the Soviet Union. For most of his acting career, he was an active Republican and a supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He even considered Senator Joseph McCarthy one of America’s “most misunderstood” heroes. However, Wayne once stated in a interview with Playboy to have been a socialist during his years at college at USC, and he admitted voting for Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. In the same interview, he also expressed admiration for Democratic President Harry S Truman.
Wayne did not begin his career with an interest in politics. He focused on his career for most of the 1940s and did not pick a side on the communist debate. When the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals was established in 1944, Wayne was not very active in the group, since he was too busy making films and taking trips with the USO to the Pacific. However, Wayne was later struck with a high level of patriotism, regretting not enlisting in the Army and wishing to get more involved. It was not until he tired of the leftist movement in Hollywood in the 1950s that Wayne would be become an active member of the Alliance and an ardent anti-communist. Wayne would later be elected president of the Alliance for four terms.
Wayne was a very active President, and showed a growing interest in making Cold War propaganda movies. Wayne would make movies like 1952’s Big Jim McLain, in which Wayne plays a HUAC investigator in Hawaii. He was very vocal against Fred Zimmerman’s 1952 film High Noon. Wayne saw it as a rebuke of HUAC’s anti-communist activities, also hating the film’s “leftist” message which he believed was promoting collectivism. Towards the end of High Noon, the main character (Gary Cooper as Will Kane) takes off his US Marshal Badge, throws it on the ground, and steps on it. Wayne saw this as an image of turning away from America, also stating that is was un-American and cowardly to ask for help like Will Kane in High Noon. Wayne’s image as a tough, independent American cowboy displayed his conservative, anti-communist politics to an American audience eager for such role models.
John Wayne was a symbol for America during the Cold War. His cowboy characters embodied the ideals and values that America was promoting, especially contrasted against those of communism: hard work, justice, and freedom. He was a champion against communism and fought to preserve those ideals through public service, political lobbying, and most importantly, his movies.
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