Rio Bravo: Two-Disc Special Edition
Directed By: Howard Hawks
Starring: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Ward Bond, John Russell, Claude Akins, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez[/color]
When I'm getting serious about a girl, I show her "Rio Bravo" and she better f---ing like it
-- Quentin Tarantino
"Rio Bravo" tells the story of the sheriff of a small western town, John Chance (Wayne), and his old friend, Dude (Martin). Dude, who has fallen onto hard times and into the bottle since a romantic betrayal, assists Chance in arresting Joe Burdette (Akins), the brother of powerful rancher Nathan Burdette (Russell), for a murder. In trying to keep Joe in custody until he can be brought to justice, Chance and Dude find themselves fighting off both Nathan's men and Dude's personal demons aided only by crippled jailman Stumpy (Brennan), while trying to keep friendly civilians such as cattleman Pat Wheeler (Bond), Wheeler's hired gunman Colorado (Nelson), seductive gambler Feathers (Dickinson), and hotel manager Carlos (Gonzalez) out of the fray.
Let's get this out of the way right now. I adore this movie. That being said, looking at it objectively, its amazing that it works at all, let alone works so well. When Howard Hawks commenced production, he was coming off of a three year fallow period after the disastrous critical and popular reception of "Land of the Pharaohs". John Wayne had not made a western since 1956's "The Searchers", partly due to their growing perception as a lower-prestige "TV" genre. The film runs over two hours and twenty minutes despite having a very simple plot. The film was conceived as a not particularly prompt response to Hawks' distaste for the protagonist of "High Noon" from seven years earlier. There is a musical sequence that stops the film dead in its tracks and goes on for two full songs. The villain is not a particularly strong character. On top of that, aside from Wayne, the cast is toplined by Dean Martin (playing a drunk), Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson, none of whom seem like stars who would draw what remained of the core western audience away from their televisions.
And yet the result is one of the most compulsively watchable films I have ever seen. The cast, to paraphrase a famous line from the film, proves to be not so much all that Hawks has, but what he has. More than just about any director in Hollywood history, Howard Hawks understood how audiences related to individual movie stars and exploited this to its fullest. As such, John Wayne fans get just about everything they love out of the big lug with a performance modulated by a slightly paternalistic tone that resolved his western hero persona with his advancing middle age. This would serve as the template for many of the roles Wayne would play for the rest of his career. Similarly, if Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson are going to be in his movie, then Hawks is darn well going to find a way to have them sing, which he does at exactly the right point in the film when a bonding scene is called for from the men defending the jailhouse. Martin, in the midst of the strongest string of serious acting roles in his career, exceeded all reasonable expectations of audience members familiar with his "stage drunk" act by playing it completely straight, making Dude the heart and soul of the picture.
In the absence of firmly established movie-star personae, Hawks goes for archetypes that have worked for him in the past. As such, Dickinson's character purposely echoes Lauren Bacall's star-making performances from Hawks' "To Have and Have Not", and "The Big Sleep". Taking what she was given and running with it, Dickinson proves to be a perfect Howard Hawks heroine. She gives as good as she gets and holds the screen in Wayne's presence as well as anyone this side of Maureen O'Hara. Similarly, Ricky Nelson's Colorado echoes Montgomery Cliff's Matt Garth from "Red River" even down to his physical mannerisms. In the role of the confident kid gunfighter, Nelson has a likeability factor so off the charts that the viewer is willing to forgive even the most awkward of line readings.
Coupled with contributions from reliable frequent Wayne collaborators Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and a witty script from frequent Hawks collaborators Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, the ensemble delivers Hawks' thesis on professionalism while simultaneously embodying it in their performances.
The movie is also a textbook example of Hawks' belief that great movies are a collection of good scenes with a handful of great ones. Right off the bat, he treats us to a great one as the film's central conflict is set-up via a bravura dialog-free action sequence ending with Wayne/Chance uttering "Joe, You're under arrest". From then on, the dialog scenes are as carefully constructed as the action scenes, and the whole thing is held together for the next two and a quarter hours by the inherent suspense of the lingering threat of Burdette's men outside the jailhouse and around every blind corner in town.
The video transfer, which fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame, is similar in character to the previous movie-only edition in many ways. There is a slight softness that will be noticeable on large displays. Grain, light film damage, and fading associated with optical work were comparable. There seems to be a tilt towards oranges and browns in the color timing compared to the original DVD. I personally prefer the coloring of the older DVD even though it sometimes had slightly rosy flesh tones. Your mileage may vary, and I do not have access to any appropriate reference to tell you which is more accurate to the filmmakers' intent circa 1959. Edge ringing is not an issue, and compression artifacts are minor unless you get uncomfortably close to your screen and start concentrating on the grain patterns.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is outstanding. Fidelity is very good, with very light background hiss throughout. There are few audible noise reduction artifacts. It sounds like a high quality mag-track, which is exactly as it should be. An alternate mono track with a French language dub is also available.
With similar video and audio quality to the previous edition, this Two-Disc Special Edition distinguishes itself with a solid set of extras.
On the first disc we get a scene specific audio commentary from film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter. Schickel and Carpenter were recorded separately and edited together. Carpenter has never made any bones about his admiration for Howard Hawks, and even made his own variation on the siege plot of "Rio Bravo" with "Assault on Precinct 13". His commentary shows a thorough knowledge of Hawks, the film, and the story of its production. That being said, Carpenter exhausts a lot of what he has to say in the early stages of the commentary, and his comments become increasingly sparse as the film progresses. Richard Schickel provides additional background information on the film, but also offers critical analysis of what he perceives are the films strengths and weaknesses. While he comments more frequently than Carpenter, his input also decreases in frequency as the film progresses, resulting in some extended comment-free passages.
Also on the first disc is a "John Wayne Trailer Gallery" including theatrical trailers for "Rio Bravo" as well as four pre-fame "B" westerns he made for Vitagraph: 1932's "The Big Stampede", 1932's "Haunted Gold", 1933's "Somewhere in Sonora", and 1933's "The Man from Monterey".
Moving over to the second disc, we have a 33 minute featurette called "Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ 'Rio Bravo'". This is a "making-of" featurette that includes talking head interview comments from filmmakers Peter Bogdonavich, John Carpenter, and Walter Hill; film scholars Jonathan Kuntz, Steven Mamber, and James D’Arc; and actress Angie Dickinson. There are also numerous audio excerpts of Hawks from archival interviews. It provides a fairly thorough overview for its running time, covering most of the same ground as the audio commentary, aside from the critical analysis, while offering more varied perspectives. The first hand accounts from Dickinson and Hawks would have fit nicely into some of the gaps in the commentary track, but I was glad to have them in any form.
Also included is an eight-and-a-half minute featurette called "Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked". This featurette tells the history of the 40 acre recreated old-west town outside of Tucson in which "Rio Bravo" was shot. On camera interview subjects include film scholar Jonathan Kuntz as well those involved with the site including tour guide Dan Schneider, entertainment manager Mark Kadow, and former owner Rob Shelton. Topics covered range chronologically from the initial construction of the town in the late 30s to support Columbia productions such as "Arizona" through the resurgence of interest of feature filmmakers in the site after "Rio Bravo" and the development of the site as a tourist destination.
Finally, we get the 55 minute documentary "The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks". Directed by Richard Schickel and narrated by director Sydney Pollack, it traces highlights of Hawks' career from his early talkies on forward, although it does seem to favor his comedies over his action films a bit. Film clips with and without narration are alternated with on-camera interview footage of Hawks. This is the same revised version of the 1973 original that appeared on the 2005 special edition DVD of "Bringing Up Baby".
In addition to the on-DVD extras, the package also comes with a collection of postcard-sized reproductions of various production stills from the movie.
The discs come in a standard-sized Amaray case with a hinged tray in the middle allowing it to hold two discs. It is in turn surrounded by a cardboard slip-cover with identical artwork to the hard case, except that the hard case has a black matte around the front cover image with a 'John Wayne Collection" banner across the top. The only insert is the envelope with the collection of stills. Press materials form Warner indicate that this title will also be available in an "Ultimate Edition" with deluxe packaging and additional physical extras including reproductions of the movie's press book and a Dell comic book adaptation.
Warner Brothers has finally given "Rio Bravo" the Special Edition I always thought it deserved. I personally prefer the color timing from the previous release, but the audio/video presentation otherwise equals or betters its predecessor in every way. The real draw for this edition is the supplements including an informative commentary, a retrospective documentary, a featurette on the location used for filming, the same vintage documentary on Howard Hawks previously released with the "Bringing Up Baby" Special Edition DVD, and a set of production photograph cards.
Note: If you are interested in an assessment of the HD-DVD release of this title, check out Neil Middlemiss' forum review at this link.
If you are interested in an assessment of the Blu-Ray release of this title, check out Kevin Koster's forum review at this link