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Re-make/Re-model: Rio Bravo (1959) vs. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Re-make/Re-model: Rio Bravo (1959) vs. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.

A tangential remake connected by only the thinnest of retained plot threads, Assault on Precinct 13 seems to have almost nothing in common with its predecessor. The superlative Western hang-out movie, a swan song of the era of dustily straightforward cowboy parables, Rio Bravo was, from its conception, longing for the past; even its appeal to youth audiences (the inclusion of teen idol Ricky Nelson as a young sharpshooter) would appear hopelessly fuddy-duddy in a few years time. Precinct, on the other hand, is a harbinger of the new: an elevated B movie with a seemingly cold-blooded heart, it has no stars and no glamor, focusing its energy on wrenching as much gritty tension as possible from its simple concept.

But aside from this wide field of differences, the films share more than just the same central plot contrivance, in which a small group of hold-outs are forced to make a lone stand against a vastly more numerous force of villains. They also work off the same emotional engine, fueled by a steady belief in the ability of good people to band together in times of crisis. This runs counter to the pessimistic heart of a movie like Night of the Living Dead, which imagines the collapse of the group dynamic in the face of evil, presuming that the thin fabric of society will tear at the first sign of external threat, with people reverting to a state of animalistic self-preservation.

Rio Bravo was made for the express purpose of refuting such a notion, created as a response to John Wayne’s apparent misreading of High Noon, which he saw as dismissive of the American institution of the fair-minded, law-upholding posse. Anchored by Wayne’s performance as Sheriff John T. Chance, and by Howard Hawks’ characteristically strong command of snappily delivered dialogue, the film hunkers down in the jailhouse of the eponymous Texas town, where a coterie of lawmen are focused on holding murderer Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) until the U.S. marshal arrives. The problem is that Joe’s brother is a rich rancher, who can afford to contract every hired gun in the surrounding area to converge on the jailhouse, a rabble of mercenaries waiting for their chance to break the prisoner free.

For a classic Western, Rio Bravo is exceedingly generous in its conception of non-Alpha Male side characters. Its climactic battle involves contributions not only from Chance and his reformed drunk sidekick (Dean Martin as Dude), but the eternally hobbled Walter Brennan, a woman (Angie Dickinson as the self-sufficient Feathers), and some Chinese and Mexican sidekicks. The latter characters are still steeped in uncomfortable stereotyping; the Mexican innkeeper in particular, played by Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as a frenetically put-upon cartoon, is just as regressive as the mustache-twirling scoundrels you might find in a less even-handed film. But the conception of a problem being solved with a little help from everyone, not just the singular efforts of a lone gunman, speaks of an inclusive view of society as a unit which gains from diversity and involvement.

John Carpenter’s far darker film espouses the same general belief. Here a shuttered police station becomes a bastion against chaos in a dying city, with members of an enormous gang massing outside, hungry for revenge after the slaying of their leader. The humanist element here is admittedly less obvious; this is a film where a child eating an ice cream cone is brutally shot to death, an early act of violence that seems to position it in the realm of sticky-fingered exploitation. But the horror on the surface of Precinct 13 also makes its eventual championing of civility and order feel more striking. Its belief in inherent human goodness is such that a notorious killer actually turns out to be a hero in disguise, a redemptive arc that mirrors Dude’s renewal in Rio Bravo.

This is a prevailing theme in much of Carpenter’s work, films that are rough and scary on the surface, but genial and old-fashioned at their cores. Siege stories like Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and even Halloween present threats that, whether internal or external, can only be defeated through the aggregate contributions of more than one individual; The Thing may catalog the blackly nihilistic destruction of an isolated group, but it ends with a necessary truce , the sharing of a whiskey bottle between two potential enemies. This sense of expansive camaraderie as an essential element of survival has a clear precedent in the humanism of Rio Bravo connecting two films that remain dedicated to a good-natured concept of unity, despite their many differences.

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