A MASSACRE IN SEQUENCE
by Alexandre Astruc
Originally published in Paris-Match, 1139 (6 mars 1971)
as "Un Massacre par sequence: Rio Lobo de Howard Hawks.
Translated by Dorothea Hoekzema
As he gets older, Howard Hawks--he must be something like seventy-five years old now--seems to take a mischievous pleasure in multiplying the number of corpses which litter his films' fertile-green carpet, scattered with cow-dung.
To kill, to shoot, to cool off, to disembowel one's fellow creature by firing at him point-blank with one or another popgun stuffed up to the muzzle with avenging gunpowder was, until now, a pleasure reserved for a small, privileged elite.
It was like a lord's occupation, a profession carefully protected by a a kind of closed group. Lords and masters delightfully abandon themselves, romping joyously in the tall grass, searching for two-legged game, while a small group of non-violent people, slaves and concubines, cook and make tortillas while raking or hoeing rutabagas or manioc.
Alas, alas! This division of labor may have seen its last days. In the latest film of Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo, with the long-lasting John Wayne, everybody, absolutely everybody, without differentiation of age, sex, or race, everybody able to move forward while brandishing a harquebus or a catapult, joins the shooting gallery.
Don't let all that keep you from immediately flocking to Rio Lobo, which is an excellent and marvelous film at the same time as a wonderful example of what a narration of pure cinematographic action can be.
Unlike so many young people whom we know only too well, this old, super-silvered fox, Howard Hawks, is not going to permit his action to slow down and spoil our pleasure under the pretext of philosophizing or of making crocodile tears flow by lingering on rows of corpses which are barely cold and which he just lined up.
Oh no! It's useless to stock up on Kleenex. One hardly has the time or the leisure to slow down in Howard Hawks' films, in Rio Lobo in particular, where gunpowder talks rather quickly and clearly.
In short, in this film, as the captain of Jacques le Fataliste by Diderot says: "Every bullet that leaves a rifle has its mark."
All of this is rather inebriating and exciting for the soul, but it risks not being an especially recommendable spectacle for cardiacs. I greatly fear that I can't advise going elsewhere to all those heart specialists and psychological analysts, who seek in the Western only a new approach in the broadening of the knowledge of man.
In Rio Bravo, indeed in El Dorado, between two performances of shooting and a drinking bout, Mr. John Wayne, tired as he was, still found time to exchange some condescending off-hand remarks with his partners, Mr. Dean Martin or Mr. Robert Mitchum. It's useless for you to flatter yourself because you are hearing anything other than the sputtering of blazing lead in so many voices coming out of so many mouths of fire.
Psychology, lyricism, photography, explanations: Hawks, this time, has thrown everything overboard, including musical filler. Only a thin and dry guitar underscores, with a few Jansenist chords, a straight-lined production.
There seems to be nothing else on the screen. Nothing more than a fantastically played action, served by a black, ferocious humor, nothing more than the broken wire of a spring which expands and vibrates in the blue-gray sky of the forest.
Nothing more. Nothingness, that's what. That is, nothingness successively and in the same film and the same breath: the attack of an armored train by Southern forces in flight, with anti-railroad terrorist commandos, bombardment with wasp-filled bags, train on the loose, pursuit in the branches and the marshes, bloody corpses thrown in the ballast, capture of John Wayne, ambush, John Wayne delivered by the yellow scarves, War of Secession continued and concluded. Camps of prisoners, search for the traitor, murder of a mountebank, arrival of a distressed orphan girl, reconciliation of John Wayne and the Southern son of Robert Mitchum, the orphan's assassination attempt, filling the four killers full of lead by the pair Wayne-Jim Mitchum (Robert's son), Rio Lobo in the hands of a sadistic and extortionist sheriff, love affair of the orphan and Mitchum's son, a ranch attack, occupation of the sheriff's office, sequestration, ransom, final explanation, splash in the water. Whew! Stop. John Wayne triumphs. No kisses. Nothingness, as I have the honor of telling you. Nothing: next to nothing. Nothing but great, admirable cinema.
The only question which still has to be asked concerning this marvelous film, the only mystery left unsolved, is the appearance of John Wayne.
Thick, weighing at least a ton of bones and beef, heavy as an ox lost in the middle of a robbery of thoroughbred horses, a preeminent paunch, bags under the eyes, one wonders how he is able to hoist himself into the saddle, then be able to stay there... Not at all. A good shot of whiskey, then he is off again, dashing and lively. It's because he doesn't want to unleash the old man to give all these young people a chance. He stays in the spotlight. He hangs on, climbing the stairs four at a time like an ex-football player to keep in shape, and sleeping with his boots on.
Burt Lancaster, with his young fifty-nine years, can talk about rest and think retirement.
As for John Wayne, he will leave as the brave do, those shooting-off-at-the-mouths, the veterans.
He will enter the grave as he always lived.