In celebration of John Wayne's 100th anniversary (1907-1979), Warner Bros. released two more of the actor's hit movies in standard and high definition. Following the previous release of "The Searchers" in SD, HD-DVD, and Blu-ray, we now have "Rio Bravo" and "The Cowboys." These latter two movies may not be everyone's first choices in Wayne's filmography, but they show up splendidly in high def.
First, let's talk about "Rio Bravo." Who would you rather have star in a Western than John Wayne or maybe Clint Eastwood? And who would you rather have direct that Western than John Ford, Clint Eastwood, or Howard Hawks? In 1959's "Rio Bravo," a big-time Western if there ever was one, we get two of our favorites: John Wayne starring and Howard Hawks directing. They made a popular duo.
In fact, Wayne and Hawks had made such a good team in 1948's "Red River" that they went on to do not only "Rio Bravo" together but two successors, "El Dorado" (1966) and "Rio Lobo" (1970), Hawks's last film, plus the African adventure, "Hatari" (1962). But Hawks was not always a director of Westerns. Indeed, he came late to the genre, having done little in the field prior to "Red River" except some uncredited work on "Viva Villa!" (1934) and "The Outlaw" (1943). No, his previous accomplishments were as diverse as the gangster film "Scarface" (1932), the screwball comedies "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) and "His Girl Friday" (1940), the war drama "Sergeant York" (1941), and the Bogart classics "To Have and Have Not" (1944) and "The Big Sleep" (1946). Add in the sci-fi thriller "The Thing From Another World" (1951), the musical comedy "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), and the historical epic "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), and you get a remarkably well-rounded filmmaker.
For all that, though, "Rio Bravo" comes off in my book as only a slightly above-average Western, an old-fashioned, slow-moving affair that doesn't entirely stand up to close scrutiny, despite its enormous public appeal and, except for me, its favorable critical support. Frankly, the movie lacks the edge that Wayne brought to some of his great Western performances like "Red River" and "The Searchers." Maybe it was Hawks's coming late to the genre that held him back from ever quite matching the Western work of his compatriot John Ford, I don't know.
Regardless, there are enough good moments in "Rio Bravo" to make it a worthwhile viewing experience, and die-hard Western fans will love it in any case. Wayne plays a typical Wayne hero, the sheriff of a small Texas border town, a fellow with the unlikely but dramatic-sounding name of John T. Chance. He's a tough, rugged man's man, who now faces a dilemma: He's got to hold a murderer, Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), in his jail until the U.S. Marshall can pick him up in six days, but the miscreant's brother, Nathan Burdette (John Russell), is a local cattle baron with an army of men bent on getting Joe out by any means possible. And the poor sheriff has only two deputies to help him, a drunk named Dude (Dean Martin) and a cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan), with the rest of the town too afraid to do anything (shades of "High Noon"). Will the sheriff give up his prisoner in the face of overwhelming odds? Will pigs fly? No, the sheriff, like Wayne and Hawks themselves, believes in truth, justice, and the American way, and that when he's in the right, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do (what a man's gotta do-do do). The sheriff will die before he gives in to evil. If you've never seen "Rio Bravo" but find the plot sounds at all familiar, you might have seen John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976), in which the director more or less remade the movie in a modern setting. I'm sure it's one of the reasons Warner Bros. asked Carpenter to do a part of the audio commentary for this set.
Anyway, Wayne is, as I say, Wayne in spades. He looks like John Wayne in Western garb, right down to the belt buckle the actor wore in "Red River." Yet it's Dean Martin who steals every scene he's in, proving he could get along fine without ex-partner Jerry Lewis. What's more, Walter Brennan as the gimpy deputy does his share to liven things up. Brennan was only in his mid sixties when he did the part, but he looked eighty. Brennan always looked eighty. He looked eighty when he played Grandpa McCoy in "The Real McCoys" several years earlier on TV. And when he finally did reach eighty, it was when he died in 1974.
Then there's the matter of the two other supporting stars, Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson. Nelson plays a young gunslinger, also with an unlikely name, "Colorado" Ryan. His character is sweet, kind, lovable, nice, the all-American boy next door with two guns blazing. He looks and sounds as though he's just stepped out of, well, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." He does his best here, but he seems out of his league. And what do you mean, Does he sing? Of course, he sings. We couldn't have a movie with one of the country's leading TV stars and rock-and-roll singers and not have the guy sing, especially not when he's paired up in the movie with another of the country's favorite singers; so, yes, Nelson and Martin do a duet that seems straight out of an old Gene Autry or Roy Rogers flick. I expected the Sons of the Pioneers to join them any minute in a chorus. At least they don't sing a rock-and-roll number, although they come close.
As for Ms. Dickinson, she plays "Feathers," another cutesy name, a traveling card sharp who becomes the film's romantic interest. A romantic interest for Martin or Nelson, who are closer her age? Certainly not, but a romantic interest for Wayne, who was about twenty-five years her senior. Still, who am I to question? Dickinson is a beautiful woman, and audiences have never seemed to mind the age discrepancy.
Hawks always said a movie was made up of a few good scenes and the rest was just getting there. In "Rio Bravo" there is too much "just getting there." I mean, the movie is way too long. There is about 30 minutes of story involved and a 128-minute running time. Now, I have nothing against long movies--"Gone With the Wind," "Lord of the Rings"--if they enthrall me, excite me, amuse me, entertain me, or enlighten me in some way. But, really, "Rio Bravo" takes forever to get to its big sequences, and much of the rest seems like padding.
The movie is notable for its moments of action; its gunplay; its main characters' amusing interplay, camaraderie, and male bonding; and its general good spirits. This was not enough, however, to convince me it was a great movie. It feels too stagey, most of it the director having filmed on a soundstage, with the outdoor shots done at Old Tucson Studios in Arizona. The outdoor sequences work best, the indoor scenes being generally too talky. The film also lacks a strong central villain. Claude Akins as Joe the murderer spends almost all of his time locked up in a jail cell, and John Russell as Joe's brother, the no-good cattle baron, gets hardly any screen time. Besides, Russell was much too handsome to look like an old-time villain, which his part in this old-timey Western demands. Russell was doing TV's "The Lawman" at the time, a role for which he was better suited.
So, "Rio Bravo" is a big, overlong Western that promotes traditional American values by using entertaining but clichéd, only-in-the-movies characters. Its action sequences are at the beginning and the end, both gunfights, with maybe two good character scenes in between. Nevertheless, that's probably enough, and it's more than most recent films can boast.
Trivia: Thanks to John Eastman in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine, New York, 1989) we learn, "Both John Wayne and Howard Hawks had strongly criticized "High Noon" (1952) and "3:10 to Yuma" (1957) for their depiction of Western lawmen as false to the macho stereotype of good American gunfighters; and Hawks intended this film as a response to such heresy. He filmed much of the picture in studio interiors, where he gave it the look and feel of a gangster movie, including the moll played by Angie Dickinson. The Arizona location not only blistered in 120-degree heat, but was plagued by a huge invasion of grasshoppers; they caked on walls, littered the boardwalks, and fried on the hot lights. To film outdoor scenes before the powerful lighting attracted swarms of them, Hawks tried to make each scene a one-take, and he largely succeeded."
As with the standard-definition Special Edition, Warner Bros. went out of their way to provide the best possible video quality for this picture, restoring the print and transferring it to HD-DVD at close to the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film's Technicolor shows up in very deep, luxurious tones, with black levels so intense they actually make the image look too dark most of the time. Outdoor scenes fare better in this regard, but since Hawks filmed so much of the movie indoors, there is most always a dark cast to the images. The hues are remarkably rich, though, and definition, while not spectacularly sharp for an HD-DVD, is good. Finally, there is a touch of grain in the opening credits and some light grain in the darker indoor scenes, but nothing that matters.
It is always a little disappointing when a movie cannot take full advantage of HD-DVD's Dolby Digital Plus (or when available Dolby TrueHD) high-definition audio, but we have what we have here, a monaural soundtrack of the day. With the audio engineers cleaning it up as well as they did, reducing the noise and transferring it to disc via DD+ 1.0 processing, it takes its place among the best mono recordings you'll hear. The sonics are quite smooth, slightly clearer in DD+ than in regular Dolby Digital, with a good dynamic response and a most natural-sounding tonal range for Dimitri Tiomkin's musical score.
The HD-DVD repeats the extras offered on the Two-Disc Special Edition, all of them presented on the one HD-DVD disc in standard definition. The main bonus attraction is an audio commentary by film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter. Oddly, although the two men add a wealth of information, they don't seem to interact, making me suppose they had taped their commentaries separately.
Next, we find a lengthy, fifty-five-minute documentary, "The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks," a 2001, Turner Classic Movies biography of the director divided into sixteen chapters. Then, we get two newly made featurettes. The first of them, "Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo," is a thirty-three-minute tribute to the film and its director and includes comments by a number of actors, directors, critics, and writers. The second featurette, "Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked," is an eight-minute look at Old Tucson Studios, where Hollywood filmed any number of Westerns.
The extras conclude with a John Wayne trailer gallery of five Wayne trailers, including one for this picture; English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired; and forty-one scene selections (but no chapter insert). As always on their HD-DVDs, WB include a bookmark component, an indicator of elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.
"Rio Bravo" is undoubtedly an American film classic, and according to the audio commentary it was the third biggest-grossing movie of 1959. However, I admit it did not hold up as well as I remembered it as a kid seeing it in a theater for my first and only time until the DVD and HD-DVD arrived. I seemed to recall its being funnier and more action-packed than it is, but such is memory and such is the state of today's action flicks by which we now compare things. Although "Rio Bravo" rather ambles along, it still has enough good points, its luxurious high-definition colors among them, to make it a pleasant viewing experience and a reminder of relatively gentler times at the picture show.