Fred Zinnemann, the director, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe, saw it as a cautionary tale—"of democracy dying" due to cowardice and self-interest.
But, Howard Hawks thought that was all hooey, whether it was a metaphor or not. The way he saw it, if Gary Cooper's sheriff was any good, or had a sense of civic duty, he wouldn't have gone around town asking people to help him, to be deputized. He just would have done it himself. It's his responsibility. The men are coming after him. To ask other people to fight your battles—that's just wrong. Against the code. Even if democracy is dying.
And so, Rio Bravo. Sheriff John T. Chance has arrested the no-good scion of a western baronage, the Burdettes, and the family has hired a bunch of very good guns-people to keep an eye on things and strategize getting the kid out "by any means necessary." No one gets in and no one gets out, without the Burdette say-so. Chance and his deputies ("a game-legged old man and a drunk") are surrounded, with no opportunity for reprieve. (And in case you hadn't noticed, autocratic rule, whether by villains or businessmen or anybody, that's democracy dying, too).
So, Chance doesn't go asking for help, even if he could use it. He'll fight with the army that he's got, not a "bunch of well-meaning amateurs" who'll just become collateral damage when the tempers and bullets start flying. And, of course, he could use the help, but he's distrustful of anybody wanting to volunteer. How useful could they be if they're reckless?
It's a Catch-22. Chance wants you if you're "good," but if you ARE "good," and really smart, you're not going to volunteer in the first place.
So, he will play the hand he's dealt, with as few people to watch out for as possible. That's Hawksian professionalism. But, the Hawksian ideal of democracy is of disparate people bonding for a common goal. In the Hawks-world, Chance will get the help whether he wants it or not.
The Set-Up: Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) is in jail and the town is being blocked and watched by thugs hired by Joe's brother, Nathan. Stuck in jail with the prisoner are Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), his deputy, a recovering alcoholic named "Dude" (Dean Martin) and "Stumpy" (Walter Brennan), the Sheriff's gimp-legged, elderly jail guard. A wagon train has come into town led by Joe Wheeler (Ward Bond), an old crony of Chance's. Wheeler wants to help the trio out and has been asking around town for recruits. Chance gets wind of this and decides to put a stop to it.
The bar is busy and games are going at the tables. At one table Wheeler is playing poker with some other men including Colorado and a fat man in a checkered vest, and with the girl Feathers.
Chance and Dude go to one end of the bar where they can watch the room, and Dude speaks to the bartender who goes away to draw a glass of beer. Chance and Dude look over the room. Carlos, who has seen them, takes the beer from the bartender and brings it himself, looking worried. He gives Dude the beer and speaks to Chance. There is no one close enough to overhear.
PLAYER: The kings full.
PAT WHEELER: That's good. Beats me.
SHERIFF JOHN T. CHANCE: Spare a minute, Pat?FEATHERS: Good evening, Sheriff.
WHEELER:(throws down his cards and gets up) Deal me out.
(Wheeler follows Chance—they return to the bar where Dude is drinking his beer)
CHANCE: You two know each other?
CHANCE: No thanks, Carlos.
CHANCE: I've been wanting to talk to you.
CHANCE: You've been talking too much.
WHEELER: What do you mean "talking too much"?
CHANCE: Anybody that sides in with me right now's liable to find themselves up to their ears in trouble.
WHEELER: Is that why you haven't asked for any deputies?
CARD-PLAYER: Give me a new deck of cards. I'm not having any luck with this one.
Carlos takes the old deck, goes to the bar and gets a fresh deck from the bartender, putting the old deck on the bar near Chance. Chance fusses idly with the cards while he talks to Wheeler.
WHEELER: I was talking about why you haven't asked for any new deputies. You could get some. How about my drivers? You could use them.
CHANCE: Suppose I got them, what would I have?
CHANCE: Some well-meaning amateurs. Most of them worried about their wives and kids.
CHANCE: Burdette has thirty or forty men, all professionals. Only things they're worried about is earning their pay.
CHANCE: No, Pat, all I'd be doing is giving them more targets to shoot at. A lot of people would get hurt.
CHANCE: Joe Burdette isn't worth it. He isn't worth one of those that would get killed.
WHEELER: Then what are you going to do?
WHEELER: All you got for help is that old man down at the jail and this--(indicating Dude)
DUDE: Borrachon is the name, Mr. Wheeler.
DUDE: I'll go outside so you can talk more freely.
CHANCE: Wasn't good, Pat. Let's sit down.
WHEELER: Yeah, I know. I shouldn't have said it.
WHEELER: I meant nothing by it.
WHEELER: But I'm so used to stumbling over that fellow.
WHEELER: I don't think I ever did see him standing on his own two feet...without something to hold him up.
CHANCE: How long you been coming here?
WHEELER: Going on two years.
CHANCE: If you'd have come through three years ago, you wouldn't have stumbled over him. Dude was good. He was my deputy.
CHANCE: Best man with a gun I ever worked with.
WHEELER: That's pretty hard to believe, Chance.
CHANCE: A girl. Just a girl that came through on the stage.
CHANCE: She was no good, but couldn't tell him that. I tried and he damn near killed me. Anyway, he was hooked. Went away with her. Six months later he came back without her. That's when the Mexicans started calling him borrachon. That's Spanish for--
WHEELER: -I know. He told me.
CHANCE: So, for two years he's been drinking...all he could buy, or somebody would buy for him until last night.
WHEELER: And how long do you think that'll last?
CHANCE: I don't know.
WHEELER: So in the meantime, you have to take care of him.
CHANCE: He's been doing a pretty good job of taking care of me.
WHEELER: I'm supposed to be your friend, too. Why don't you let me help you? Why don't ya deal me in?
CHANCE: You're not good enough.
WHEELER: I don't know! I'm as good--
CHANCE: If you're so good, why did you have to hire Colorado?
CHANCE: No thanks, Pat, you keep out of it.
WHEELER: That's an idea.
WHEELER: Ryan. "Colorado," you call him. He's young, Chance, but he's good. Real good.
CHANCE: I could use him if he's good. But that's up to him.
WHEELER: We'll see what he says.
He goes to the table, speaks to Colorado, and comes back with him.
COLORADO: Good evening, Sheriff.
CHANCE: Any luck, kid?
COLORADO: It's a pretty fast game.
WHEELER: Son, I...asked you over here because the Sheriff's a friend of mine. He's got trouble. He can use a good man.
COLORADO: To go against the Burdettes, Sheriff?
CHANCE: That's right.
WHEELER: I told him you were one of the best.
COLORADO: I'll tell you what I'm a lot better at, Mr. Wheeler. That's minding my own business.
COLORADO: No offense, Sheriff.
CHANCE: No offense.
WHEELER: Well, I never expected that.
CHANCE: He showed good sense. I'd like to have him.
WHEELER: I don't see why you--
CHANCE: Quit stewing, Pat. You tried. I appreciate it.
WHEELER: Alright, if you don't want me, I'll round up my men......and get set for an early start in the morning.
WHEELER: See you before I go.
Written by Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman (and Howard Hawks)
Pictures by Russell Harlan and Howard Hawks
Rio Bravo is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.