Studio: Warner Bros.
US Rating: Not Rated
Film Length: 141 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Video Resolution/Codec: 1080p/VC-1
Audio: English 1.0 Dolby Plus, French 1.0
Subtitles: Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles
The Film - out of
Legendary filmmaker, Howard Hawks retreated from Hollywood after the critical and commercial failure of the ambitious Land of the Pharaohs. He sunk himself into Europe for nearly four years and when he finally reemerged, he found the landscape of American entertainment had entered a new phase. The explosion of serialized television, episodic character focused shows, a clear one third of which were set in the Western Genre, in many ways helped set the tone that he would ultimately infuse in his crowning directorial achievement, Rio Bravo.
The story is simple, as most great westerns are. After killing a man during a fight in a saloon, Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) is arrested by the sheriff and hauled to jail where he is to wait until the US Marshals can arrive and take him into Custody. However, Burdette is brother to a powerful local rancher, who along with his band of criminal elements looks to engineer his escape. John Wayne stars as Sheriff John T. Chance, who along with the gimp-legged Stumpy (played by legendary character actor Walter Brennan) and recovering alcoholic “Dude”, (a surprisingly effective Dean Martin) must stand their ground at the town jail until the US Marshal comes. Arriving in town just after the murderer is taken into Custody is an old friend of the Sheriff, Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) and a very young, confident gun slinger by the name of Colorado Nelson, played by teen idol of the day, Ricky Nelson. Finally, Feathers, a sharp witted and strong female arrives, played by the stunningly beautiful Angie Dickinson, adding what many film historians and Howard Hawk’s fans regard as the quintessential ‘Hawksian’ woman to the mix.
Filmed at the famous Old Tucson Studios (a move that enabled a resurgence of the ailing studio), Rio Bravo is considered one of the greatest westerns ever made and certainly noted as Hawk’s crowning achievement. Signing on the larger than life John Wayne to the role of the Sheriff helped Hawk’s get the project green lit and gave cinema one of its most beloved films. The film gave both Hawks and the ‘Duke’ a shot in the arms of their careers, gave Dean Martin credibility as a serious actor and inspired a generation of filmmakers in their craft.
Working from an accomplished script, filled with engaging characters and spirited dialogue that earns much praise for both its levity and, in places, brevity, the filmmaker poured in his craftsmanship. Endowing the film with his simplicity and deliberate scene staging, producing a marvelous, contented character-enabled atmosphere interrupted by lively gun battles and the brewing unease of a town under siege, especially during the third act.
The opening of Rio Bravo is also extremely noteworthy. Harkening back to the silent era, Hawks’ built up a scene that set the stage for the film’s major plot points without any dialogue for over 4 and a half minutes. It is, without question, a highlight of this film.
While his style may lack flair, his scenes are well framed and seamlessly staged and, though there is a growing retrospective appreciation of his films, it seems that due credit is still not aptly afforded this talented filmmaker for the work he crafted. Perhaps most underappreciated is Hawks’ faith in the simplicity of performance over dialogue. Many of the better scenes in Rio Bravo conclude with the actors doing more with a shrug, a cutting of the eyes or a firm stare than creative editing or complicated angles could accomplish. That must be Hawk’s style. Rather than using grand filmic overtures, sweeping Southwest vistas or editing driven drama to tell his westerns, he prefers to allow the simplicity of his shots, much like the overall story, to connect to the audience.
The quickly established atmosphere of a confined town, slowly tightening through the film, with the protagonists waiting for the impending action of the powerful rancher brother, is inspired. Hawks never betrays that tightness, concentrating most of the action in the film inside the jail, the saloons, hotel and the main street. Only during the third act are the confines of the town breached for the final showdown during the prisoner exchange, a choice that preserves that concentrated ‘bottled-up’ town atmosphere, providing an extra boost to the action as a kind of release, a stretching of the arms and legs almost after being pent up for two hours.
The casting choices in Rio Bravo also establish this film as a classic amongst classics. John Wayne, back in the genre after an absence of several years must have come as a welcome return for audiences back in 1959. With his John T. Chance character, the ‘Duke’ is again the great onscreen ‘observer’, soaking up scenes with his eyes and posture in a way that represents an unyielding calm. This is a character that rarely says more than is needed, which is not to say that he is hushed or monosyllabic, just imbibed with an ability to be as much a presence in a scene simply by standing there as those doing most of the talking.
There is much more to his iconic swagger and drawn speech than the legend ascribes. His is a fiercely simple approach to scenes that, through the years, matured into a display of an inner complexity to his rugged and familiar archetypal roles. He manages to seethe common sense and a larger than life presence; a confidence and weathered wisdom that add to his appeal, something displayed with such force during Rio Bravo that it is not hard to understand why this man became the legend that he has.
Dean Martin as the recovering alcoholic, fallen from grace deputy really was inspired casting. Choosing Martin, a charming and sly member of the Rat Pack allowed him to deliver a performance filled with an acerbic sarcasm and self disenfranchised loner mentality that softens through the film. He carries the weight of a love lost and alcoholic compulsion in every step, managing to be the troubled but witty man measuring himself against his former self, and fighting that demon, all while supporting the Sherriff and his duty. A grand achievement.
As described in the film, the Colorado character, played by teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson, is a youthful, smart and cautiously calm gunslinger. Nelson plays it pretty straight and honest and feels right at home next to the towering presence of Wayne. The confident Colorado, or ‘Cola-rada’ as Sherriff Chance says, has an inexperienced and youthful face that hides the simmering cool and sharp-shot skills of this young man.
Angie Dickinson gives an impressively balanced, sharp and strong performance as Feathers, the girl who drifts into town just as the trouble starts up. Her young age when she was cast in this role seems to have been a choice questioned as the romantic interest for the much older Wayne. But, perhaps as a result of the postmodern diversification of onscreen romances, the impact has lessened to near nothing now.
Finally, Stumpy, the near caricature character played by the enormously popular Walter Brennan, is extremely likeable. Constantly underappreciated and seemingly befuddled, Stumpy is the grouchy comic relief. The impression he performs of the Duke’s authoritative speech style near the end is genuinely delightful.
There is a scene in the film, inside the jail the night before the big showdown where Hawks examines with little dialogue, the camaraderie and male bonding that he enjoyed so much. Here, Dean Martin croons a sweet song, “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” with Ricky Nelson, followed by Ricky Nelson leading the toe tapping “Get Along Home, Cindy”. It might seem an odd interlude, but given Hawks pacing and story telling, and how he enjoys moments where we casually spend time with the characters, this counterpoint to the brewing tension feels like an appropriate diversionary and relevant moment, and is one to enjoy.
Hawks delivers a solid and entertaining western, worthy to be considered his greatest accomplishment.
Audio Commentary with Filmmaker John Carpenter and Film Historian Richard Shickel – This is a great, solid audio commentary, with both men discussing with great appreciation, this film and the career of Howard Hawks. Both men, Carpenter in particular, offer a great deal of good information about the film, the context and the filmmaking techniques, describing Hawks as a man with “a clarity and simplicity of vision”. They seem to capture, passionately and affectionately, the essence of Hawks and his impact on Westerns and films in general.
The commentary of Carpenter and Shickel was not recorded at the same time but rather edited together, a choice that is a little disconnecting at times as they speak independently of the same things at times and it feels a little odd. But overall, this is an excellent commentary track.
Old Tucson: Where Legends Walked (8:33) – A brief and simple location retrospective that, while a little touristy at times, shows off the studio location nicely.
Commemoration: Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo (33:21) – A fine mini-documentary on Director Hawks making of Rio Bravo, featuring the insightful perspectives of filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich, Walter Hill and longtime Hawks admirer, John Carpenter. It also features interview snippets from Angie Dickinson and audio excerpts of Hawks discussing the making of the film. This a great feature, discussing with depth and insight the man, his style and his film. Of note is the discussion of the alternate ending that Hawks filmed when the ratings board decided that his original ending provided for too obvious an implication that the Sherriff and Feathers would be sexually intimate. Sadly, footage of the original ending did not survive.
The Men Who Made Movies – Howard Hawks (55:00) – This fine 2001 mini-documentary, originally for produced for Turner Classic Movies, is filled with interview clips with Howard Hawks interspersed with clips from his films through the years, all the way back to the 1930’s Dawn Patrol. It is an excellent examination from the man himself of just how simply the films were approached. Either he likes the scene he shot or he didn’t, and if he didn’t, he stayed there until he did. This is an engrossing documentary, narrated by another great filmmaker, Sydney Pollack and is a welcome inclusion.
Wayne Trailer Gallery – Theatrical Trailers for:
The Big Stampede (1932)
Haunted Gold (1932)
Somewhere In Sonora (1933)
The Man From Monterey (1933)
Rio Bravo (1939)
Howard Hawks returned again to the themes examined in Rio Bravo with both El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970), in what are considered unofficial remakes. John Carpenter, who remade one of Hawk’s earlier works (and one of my favorites) The Thing From Another World, cites Rio Bravo as a major source of inspiration for his 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13.
The quality of this HD-DVD release is also highly commendable, with a solid audio track, picture quality that is for the most part, faithful, and extras that carefully appreciate the mastery of this film, it is an easy one to recommend.
Note: If you are interested in an assessment of the Standard DVD release of this title, check out Ken McAlinden's forum review at this link.
Note: If you are interested in an assessment of the Blu-Ray release of this title, check out Kevin EK's forum review at this link.