As everyone surely knows, the great critic Robin Wood, who wrote many a profound word on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and other filmmakers and films which were at the time deemed beneath consideration and discussion by the critical cognoscenti, passed away over the Christmas holiday. The day before Christmas, Jonathan Rosenbaum passed along a list dictated by Wood to a close friend, John Anderson, two days before he died. The list noted Wood’s favorite films; curiously, there is no Hitchcock on the list, though reading it was, for me at least, a pleasant reminder of films I haven’t seen in years (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, Ruggles of Red Gap), films I have yet to see (Angel Face) and films I dearly love (Sansho the Balliff, Code Unknown, Seven Samurai, Make Way for Tomorrow). And at the top of the list, Howard Hawks’ magnificent Rio Bravo, a film that Wood once wrote would be the movie he would cite if asked to name one film that could possibly justify the existence of Hollywood.
Wood’s citing of the Hawks film should be no surprise to anyone who knew Wood’s work. Yet upon hearing of the list, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere decided that it was the appropriate thing to do to chastise the late critic for his taste. He devoted an entire post (one I at first assumed might be tongue-in-cheek) to downgrading Rio Bravo in favor of High Noon, not entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the very movie that Hawks claimed* was the inspiration for Rio Bravo. Wells wrote:
“You're about to leave the earth and meet the monolith and the greatest film you can think of is Rio Bravo? A zero-story-tension hangin' movie that constantly subjects viewers to screechy-voiced Walter Brennan, and which features the very soft-spoken, adolescent-voiced Ricky Nelson singing a duet with Dean Martin? If Wood is listening from his side of the cosmic fence, let me try explaining this one more time…”
Aside from whether one prefers Hawks and John Wayne (and Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan and Dean Martin) over Fred Zinnemann, Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, it seems to me to be in incredibly bad taste to treat Wood’s deathbed declaration, made while undoubtedly enduring a lot of pain and discomfort, as a call for debate, as if he was standing before the National Society of Film Critics during their annual meeting when he made it. Though it ended up being perhaps his last word on the subject, the list was shared by Anderson and Rosenbaum in a spirit of respect and communication with those who followed Wood’s career and was undoubtedly never intended to be the spark of public discussion. Though he claims to have followed Wood for years, for someone like Wells to be at all shocked that Wood would hold Rio Bravo in such high esteem, especially over High Noon, makes me wonder just how closely Wells was reading Wood in the first place. (Maybe there was a comic book tucked inside the hardcover pages of Wells’ copy of Sexual Politics in Narrative Film, because surely if he had read it he might find Wood’s championing of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo, in a 1997 essay entitled “Mandingo: The Vindication of an Abused Masterpiece,” even more disturbing.)
I’m not suggesting that Wells hasn’t a right to prefer High Noon over Rio Bravo-- I’m sure many do. (Hell, I know a few people who prefer El Dorado over Rio Bravo.) The point is that Wells can’t seem to see that this is not the moment to take a dying critic’s last words and use them in such a self-aggrandizing, opportunistic way. The instant my own appreciation for humanity takes a back seat to my all-consuming need for the movies, please feel free to forcibly unplug my computer and make arrangements to have me sent away. That’s what true friends are for. For now, the thought of Robin Wood contemplating his favorite films, the ones that challenged him intellectually and undoubtedly gave him comfort, as he inched ever closer to the end of his own life is a thought that comforts me too. To Wood, who revered cinema as something to be given to as well as taken from, this comfort was the art form’s final gift. Thanks to John Anderson and Jonathan Rosenbaum for allowing those of us who would appreciate the giving of that gift to share in it.
* Howard Hawks is quoted in Joseph McBride’s book Hawks on Hawks:
“Rio Bravo was made because I didn't like a picture called High Noon. I saw High Noon at about the same time I saw another western picture, and we were talking about western pictures, and they asked me if I liked it, and I said, "Not particularly." I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn't my idea of a good western sheriff. I said that a good sheriff would turn around and say, "How good are you? Are you good enough to take the best man they've got?" The fellow would probably say no, and he'd say, "Well, then I'd just have to take care of you." And that scene was in Rio Bravo. Then I said I saw another picture where the sheriff caught a prisoner, and the prisoner taunted him and made him perspire and worry and everything by saying, "Wait till my friends catch up with you." And I said, "That's a lot of nonsense, the sheriff would say, 'You better hope your friends don’t catch up with you, 'cause you'll be the first man to die.'" While we were doing all this, they said, "Why don't you make a picture the other way?" And I said, "OK," and we made Rio Bravo the exact opposite from High Noon and this other picture, I think it was called 3:10 to Yuma.”