In 1955, director Howard Hawks, stung by the critical and commercial failure of his big-budget epic 'Land of the Pharaohs,' took what would become a four-year exile from Hollywood. It was a startling about-face for the embattled but highly-prolific director, who previously had directed forty pictures in almost as many years. But Hawks would, phoenix-like, eventually re-emerge from the ashes. Inspired by explosive popularity of American episodic television, he roared back with the 1959 Western 'Rio Bravo,' which restored his tarnished reputation in one fell swoop, and is still considered by many to be the greatest picture he ever made.
Still, it's fair to say that Hawks, unlike his contemporaries John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Alfred Hitchcock, was not particularly appreciated during his lifetime, at least considering the esteem his pictures now enjoy. A journeyman who straddled multiple genres, Hawks seamlessly executed sci-fi ('The Thing'), ribald comedy ('Gentlemen Prefer Blondes') and crime drama ('Scarface') with great ease, but his work lacked the completely authoritative, directorial stamp of his more auteur-like brothers, and suffered critically for it. As Peter Bogdanovich wryly notes in the supplementary material in 'Rio Bravo,' Hawks made "commercial movies from a personal viewpoint" -- not personal movies that might have been commercial.
It was Hawks' dedication to craftsmanship over directorial razzle-dazzle, however, that has proven essential to the longevity of his work. 'Rio Bravo' holds up quite well today as entertainment, precisely because it is a simple story, and one well told. It can be enjoyed purely as a great, escapist Western, regardless of our knowledge of the man who made it. It is also, without a doubt, one of the best pictures in the John Wayne oeuvre, second only perhaps to 'The Searchers,' 'True Grit' and 'Stagecoach.'
The plot of 'Rio Bravo' is hardly trail-blazing. Wayne stars as Sheriff John T. Chance, the main peacekeeper of the small Texas town Rio Bravo. He will face his greatest challenge when he's assigned to take custody of a murderer whose brother, a powerful rancher, is plotting his escape. After unexpected bloodshed follows, Chance and his deputies -- disgraced drunk "Dude" (Dean Martin) and the ornery, crippled Stumpy (Walter Brennan) -- must find a way to hold out against the rancher's hired guns until the federal marshal arrives. Not helping matters is the arrival of a cocky young gunslinger (Ricky Nelson), and a mysterious beauty (Angie Dickinson), who may have the hots for the much older Chance.
I know its sacrilege to say in some corners of movie fandom, but I've never been a huge fan of Wayne. Having said that, his performance here is nothing if not winning. But for me, 'Rio Bravo' really earns its place in the Western pantheon largely because of the idiosyncrasies of the rest of the cast. Martin brings a welcome mix of Rat Pack swagger, rascally sense of humor and smoldering sexuality (he's rarely seen without his shirt half-unbuttoned) to a fairly nondescript straight-man role. He infuses a certain subtlety to every scene he's in that's unusual for the straight-laced westerns of the period, and his performance is almost post-modern in its irony. Nelson, too, is a surprise. Then a huge television star but untested on the big screen, his naivete and insecurity actually improve his characterization, even if it's unintentional. And shining in smaller roles are Dickinson as the amorous Feathers, who somehow makes even the queasiest double entendres with Wayne somehow charming, and veteran character actor Brennan, who brings mountains of scrappy charm to what could have been an offensive caricature.
Throughout 'Rio Bravo,' Hawks subverts style to let the substance of the script emerge. Granted, complaints that the influence of television on Hawks' directorial choices are valid -- 'Rio Bravo' does have a somewhat flat, TV-like banality to it. It certainly lacks much action aside from its opening and closing acts. However, watch the first, nearly word-less five-minute sequence where Martin first comes into town -- it's an impressive, if subtle, piece of virtuoso filmmaking, and a testament to Hawks's underappreciated visual sense. 'Rio Bravo' may never scale the aesthetic heights of the best work of a Ford or a Peckinpah, nor does its story add anything new to the genre in this age of post-modern, deconstructionist westerns like 'Unforgiven.' But in terms of sheer entertainment, 'Rio Bravo' is as fun a cowboy flick as any you're likely to see.
It is clear right from the opening credits of 'Rio Bravo' that this is not going to be a remaster of the caliber of, say, 'The Searchers,' another classic Western Warner recently gave the high-def treatment. But even if 'Rio Bravo' is not absolute perfection, it is still a fine-looking vintage catalog title, and one that arguably looks far better than it has any right to.
After the rather gritty, dirty opening credit sequence, this 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 encode picks up quite nicely. The film remains grainy, but it's surprisingly consistent even in darker scenes. The print irself has been nicely cleaned-up, although it's still not pristine with speckles and blemishes here and there. Colors are quite vibrant -- 'Rio Bravo' has a very Technicolor, painterly look that's not "realistic" but is still attractive. Sharpness varies, with select shots looking quite soft, but in general it's pretty solid for a film nearly five decades old. Otherwise, this is strong, with rich blacks and smooth contrast. Detail also reveals fine textures and a pretty good sense of depth. Major compression artifacts are also not a problem.
Due to the very limited source materials available, Warner is only able to muster a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono (192kbps) track for 'Rio Bravo.' No surround remix, or even a stereo track, is provided.
The source is in fine shape nonetheless. Obviously, there is no sense of immersion or atmosphere to the mix given the lack of surrounds, but thankfully 'Rio Bravo' is largely free of the shrill high-end so typical of dated mono tracks. Low bass is also not bad at all -- again hardly hefty, but gunshots and the like have decent oomph for a 1959 film. There are also no major source defects, such as dropouts or inaudible dialogue. Not much more can be said about this one.
If only every studio was as supportive of their revered classics as Warner -- they always know how to do these vintage catalog titles right when it comes to supplementary material. Hitting both HD DVD and Blu-ray just a week after making their debut on the standard-def DVD, the supplements package for 'Rio Bravo' is arguably superior to even most new releases, covering all the bases and doing it with great elegance and class. Considering that just about everyone involved with 'Rio Bravo' has long since passed, Warner's commitment to comprehensiveness is all the more laudable.
Lifelong Howard Hawks fan and director John Carpenter joins film historian Richard Schickel for a screen-specific audio commentary. Carpenter is obviously passionate about his hero, the common themes in his work, and especially the development of "Hawksian Woman," typified by her raspy voice and strong sexuality. Schickel provides more all-around background about 'Rio Bravo' and its place in the Hawks' pantheon, though in the case of both participants, most of the stories surrounding the production are secondhand. But seeing as there's no tabloid-like expose here, that's not a problem. The only odd thing is that Carpenter and Schickel never interact, which gives the track a detached quality -- it seems highly likely that both were recorded separately and edited together later.
Just the commentary alone would probably enough for most fans, but Warner goes the extra mile with not one but three video extras. My favorite is "Commemoration: Howard Hawks' 'Rio Bravo.'" This newly-produced 33-minute retrospective look at the making of 'Rio Bravo' features new interviews with Carpenter and Schickel, plus directors Peter Bogdanovich and Walter Hill, star Angie Dickinson, and a host of other critics and historians. Again considering that Dickinson is the only surviving member of the production team, the doc is surprisingly comprehensive and insightful. Hawks is, of course, the focus here, and the doc's participants make a strong case for a level of craftsmanship to his pictures that rivals any of the leading auteurs of his generation. Also of interest is a discussion of the film's much-fabled two alternate endings, shot to appease the then-very stringent Hollywood production code (alas, none of the footage of the alternate endings has survived, so the material remains unseen).
Also strong is an installment in the vintage 1973 "The Men Who Made Movies" documentary series, titled (appropriately enough) "Howard Hawks." It runs a lengthy 55 minutes, and features one of the last recorded interviews with the director. I found the pacing and structure of the doc a bit haphazard -- it is certainly not as snappy as today's cut-a-minute, ultra-polished affairs -- but it does an admirable job of somehow tackling a man who made a movie a year for almost fifty years(!). It also wisely focuses primarily on the recurring themes in Hawks's work, alternating between interview footage and extensive film clips. I don't think "The Men Who Make Movies" is as strong as "Commemoration," but it's still a vital document for Hawks fans.
Finally, there is "Old Tucson: Where Legends Walked," but this one's a bit of a throwaway -- a 8-minute tribute to the built location that served as the basis for 'Rio Bravo's action that's now a popular tourist attraction.
Rounding out the extras is a John Wayne Trailer Gallery, which includes 'Rio Bravo' along with 'The Big Stampede,' 'Haunted Gold,' 'Somewhere in Sonora' and 'The Man from Monterey.' Like all of the video-based extras, the trailers are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only. However, at least Warner has formatted all the materials for 16:9 screens, so the video is (thankfully) not windowboxed.
I'm personally not a huge fan of Westerns, so it is no small compliment for me to say that I found 'Rio Bravo' to be quite an enjoyable ride, and one that holds up quite well almost fifty years on. It's a legitimate classic of the genre, particularly notable for what is considered John Wayne's most tender performance and a strong supporting cast including Dean Martin and a very young Ricky Nelson. Warner has put together a fine retrospective HD DVD release for this Howard Hawks favorite, with an impressive transfer and excellent supplementary material. This restoration may not be quite up to the caliber of 'The Searchers,' but it is certainly a more-than-respectable effort befitting a legend of Wayne's stature.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.