"Rio Bravo" is considered by many to be one of director Howard Hawks' and star John Wayne's better films. The 1959 Western is a lengthy film and features not only John Wayne, but Rat-Pack crooner Dean Martin and Fifties teen star Ricky Nelson. Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan and Claude Akins provided strong supporting roles as well. Hawks had been absent from Hollywood for four years after his film "Land of the Pharaohs had bombed. Dean Martin had just began to move away from his fellow Rat Packers and wanted to make a name for himself. Ricky Nelson was a television and recording star. Aside from the perennial classic "The Searchers," Wayne himself was in decline. The four men behind the film combined forces in this Western and while expectations may not have been high, the film earned a nomination from the Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures and "Rio Bravo" is now a classic Western.
John Wayne is tough Sheriff John T. Chance. He is a loner who is respected as sheriff, but lacks a strong supporting cast of deputies and has imprisoned a murderer, Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) and now finds himself under siege by Burdette's brother's hired henchmen who look to free Joe from his imprisonment. The two deputies that are under the hire of Chance is a town drunk who has lost himself due to a broken heart. Dude (Dean Martin) can barely stand up straight and has terrible shakes when he isn't drinking. The other deputy is a crippled and gabby old man called Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Stumpy has an itchy finger and is assigned to sit in the cell area with Joe and fire at anybody that comes through the door without identifying themselves first. With a cripple and a drunk, Chance has little chance of fending off the well paid posse that has a sole purpose of springing Joe from his cell.
Two out-of-towners arrive in a stagecoach and add complexity to the siege that Chance finds himself in. The first out-of-towner is a lovely young lady called Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Feathers is nearly arrested by Chance for being a cheat at the card table and has a Wanted poster with her description for her arrest. However, the pretty lass finds aid in the hands of a young gunman that goes by the name of Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson). Colorado shows Chance the real cheat at the card table and earns some of the Sheriff's respect. The complexity for Chance arrives in the fact that Feathers becomes enamored with the Sheriff and wants to earn his affection. Colorado has a smart and strong sense of what he should poke his nose into and after an initial hesitation to become a deputy under Chance's hire; he becomes a key member of the men who are trying to keep Nathan Burdette (John Russell) and cronies from killing Chance and freeing Joe.
John Wayne is the consummate cowboy actor. The 6'4" actor was a physical presence that commanded the screen was the complete embodiment of a cowboy. His patriarchal performance in "Rio Bravo" is a familiar role for the actor, but if Wayne was starring in a Western, it was pretty much a given that the veteran actor would excel at the role. This film is no exception as John Wayne is very convincing as the straight laced Sheriff who must defend the law and try to keep order among his misfit deputies. Dean Martin is especially good as Dude. The actor was known for hard living and hard drinking and is experience pays off as he is an overly convincing drunk in this film. When Dude is recovering and trying to make amends for the couple years of drowning in alcohol, the honesty and earnest of Martin's performance is readily apparent.
After Wayne and Martin, the level of acting is a mixed bag. Ricky Nelson is overly young in this film and has a naïve sensibility that is effective for the role of Colorado, but the actor is perhaps a little too clean cut to be completely believable. Nelson was enjoyable, but he is supposed to be an extremely capable gunslinger and I had trouble swallowing that pill. Angie Dickinson is a lovely young lady and she hits the mark as Feathers. However, I have difficulty in buying into the romance between the fifty-something Wayne and the twenty-something Dickinson. I could see her falling for Dude, but not Wayne. The first of two roles that were either overly stereotypical or grotesque caricatures was that of Stumpy. Walter Brennan was either expected to be a continual source of comedy relief or downright annoying. Either way, I kept hoping that somebody would shoot Stumpy. The other role that was laughable in nature was that of Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez). The role of Carlos should be offensive to any Mexicans that watch this film.
"Rio Bravo" is a classic, but flawed Western. John Wayne rides tall in the saddle and is effective as usual as John T. Chance and he masterfully handles the gunplay, horse riding and acting that is demanded by the role. Actually, there is very little horse riding, but he does get to ride for about one hundred yards in one scene. Dean Martin had a top-notch performance and outshined Wayne in a few scenes where both men shared the screen. Nelson is also good. The rest of the cast is nearly forgettable, but for a Western of the late Fifties, this is a good ensemble cast. The storyline is very good and Hawks had remade his own film twice with 1967's "El Dorado" and 1970's "Rio Lobo." Director John Carpenter had based his 1976 film "Assault on Precinct 13" on the film as well. Aside from two corny characters and an unbelievable love story, "Rio Bravo" is perhaps the best collaboration between Wayne and Hawks and this is deserving of being placed among the best all time Westerns.
The John Wayne film "The Searchers" is my benchmark for which I judge catalog titles in high definition. I have amazed more than a few viewers with the stunning clarity of that film. I had hoped that "Rio Bravo" would rank right up there with the slightly older "The Searchers," but alas, I would find an amount of disappointment with this transfer. Framed in 1.85:1 widescreen and mastered with the VC-1 codec, "Rio Bravo" possesses a few very good looking scenes, but is often overly soft. The softness is extremely apparent during scene transitions. The screen nearly looks out of focus for a brief second before the cut is made to another scene. Many scenes in the film are nicely detailed, but when I look at this and I look at "The Searchers," it is hard to not be disappointed. Color reproduction is very good. Black levels were very deep and faithful. Film grain is readily apparent during the long, dialogue-less opening scene but mostly disappears for the remainder of the film. The source materials are quite clean and no flaws in the digital mastering are visible. The level of detail is disappointing, but it is not nearly as bad as some other catalog titles released.
I always dislike scoring a film that is of the older variety and features a mono mix. Such is the case with "Rio Bravo" and its Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix is remarkably clean, but lacks any oomph or excitement that would be beneficial for this classic western. As far as mono soundtracks go, "Rio Bravo" is a very good one. Gunshots ring loudly with a hint of bass. The musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin sounds fairly good and the Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson rendition of "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" sounded pretty good. A small amount of hiss could be heard through the lonely center channel, but it was hardly noticed and did not take away from the clean sounding title. Dialogue is very clean, but there isn't a lot of sound information to populate the speaker alongside the dialogue. It's mono. It's clean.
The 141 minute film "Rio Bravo" is joined by a few nice supplements that have continually made this revisiting of John Wayne's films for his 100 year birthday a pleasant treat. The Commentary by Director John Carpenter and Historian/Critic Richard Schickel is an informative and interesting commentary track that includes a large wealth of background information on Hawks, Wayne and the film. The track is recorded "Criterion Style" and features the two men edited together in one coherent track. Even with this style of commentary, a few notably long absences in discussion from either man exist. This is still a good commentary track and I enjoyed hearing John Carpenter discuss Hawks, a man he admired greatly.
Two documentaries are included on the disc. Commemoration: Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (33:24) features John Carpenter, Walter Hill, Richard Schickel and others taking a retrospective look at "Rio Bravo." Howard Hawks is the primary focus of this half hour long feature and they make their case as to why "Rio Bravo" was Hawks' best film and a very influential film. Angie Dickinson provides first hand insight into the production. The second feature, The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (55:03) is a documentary from 1973 and features a long and insightful interview with the legendary director. This was one of the final interviews with Hawks and a lot of footage from his films is featured and this was a nice sit-through for an hour.
A couple shorter features complete this nice home video release of "Rio Bravo." Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked (8:35) looks at the studio where "Rio Bravo" and hundreds of other Westerns were shot. Old Tuscon is now a tourist attraction, but a nice little look at the sprawling set. A Wayne Trailer Gallery features trailers for "The Big Stampede," "Haunted Gold," "Somewhere in Sonora," "The Man from Monterey" and "Rio Bravo." These have a ‘Play All' feature and can be watched independently. I've never seen half of these films, but wonder if they will be making the move to Blu-ray (I'm reaching). The 1932 film "Haunted Gold" looks like a good time. John Wayne was awfully young in this one.
"Rio Bravo" is considered one of Howard Hawks' finest and most influential films. It is a John Wayne classic and one of the truly great Westerns. With a solid performance by crooner Dean Martin and a nice job by then- teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson, "Rio Bravo" is an ensemble film that has been remade and rehashed numerous times; twice by Hawks, himself. The Blu-ray transfer is a technically clean, but unremarkable transfer. The sound is single channel mono and while clear, it is not particularly exciting to the ear. The visuals are often overly soft and certainly cannot stand up to the visually stunning "The Searchers" or even the standard definition release of "True Grit." The supplements are well worth the price of admission and I enjoyed sitting through them. All-in-all, this is another fine film to bolster up any collection during this John Wayne renaissance.