John Wayne had already remade Rio Bravo from 1959, a film about a sheriff protecting his office from outlaws, in El Dorado in 1966. But Howard Hawks, who directed those two films, wanted to do it a third time in Rio Lobo in the 1970s.
When the filmmaker first approached Duke about the idea, the Hollywood star replied: “Can I be drunk this time?”
Originally to be shot in Durango, Mexico for $5 million, Rio Lobo – which is on ITV4 today – was filmed for an additional $1 million at Old Tucson, Arizona, since 1971’s Lawman was already shooting south of the border.
Hawks wanted EL Dorado star Robert Mitchum to recapture his drunken sheriff, but he gave up. However, he would visit the set since his son Christopher had a role that the director had to negotiate with the studio to be included.
At this point in his career, Wayne, aged 62, was in poor health after having his cancerous lung removed a few years earlier. The star, who was 13 years older than Jack Elam’s Old Man character, struggled to get on and off his horse and was still recovering from tearing a ligament in his shoulder while shooting The Undefeated since 1969.
Wayne’s fight scene with Victor French had to be filmed very carefully, and most of the shots used were doubles. Much of the scrapping took place off-camera, with only the sounds of scuffling to be heard.
Her Rio Lobo co-star, Jennifer O’Neill, recalled the difficulty Duke had in carrying her up the stairs. In an interview in the video below, she said: “He was completely exhausted, he was really struggling through it.” But despite his suffering, the 21-year-old remembered Wayne as “the nicest man in the world”, who went out of his way to help young actors who wanted to improve their performances. However, she couldn’t say the same for the Hawks director.
The filmmaker would blame Rio Lobo’s critical and commercial failure on no one but himself, saying “I didn’t think it was any good”. The director, who injured himself and needed four stitches while filming the railway scene, felt that 62-year-old Wayne was too old to carry the film – and critics echoed this in their reviews . He went on to claim that Ó Néill was also inexperienced and difficult to work with.
However, she said that when the filmmaker first approached her about her role as Shasta, he walked right up to the actress and punched her in the gut, telling the 21-year-old that her voice was too high Hawk told her to go out into the woods and sit there and scream at trees so that her vocal cords would be rougher for the part.
O’Neill said Hawks’ punch hurt her after the director pushed her with intent. The actor also said that he said he would make her a star if she signed up for three films, though Rio Lobo would be his last. Since she was rejected, the filmmaker’s feelings towards her changed and he treated her badly on the set. She even alleged that Hawks said he would ruin her career.
During filming, the 21-year-old felt that the director’s mental faculties were not fully functioning, which may explain some of his bad behavior. In fact, O’Neill shot one scene wearing a fake mustache as a joke, which Hawks completely missed even after he yelled.
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