“You can do just about what you want, Chance”
When director Howard Hawks was shooting a new film in Old Tucson and Hollywood in mid-1958, over five years had elapsed since his previous American film (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953, Fox]). During that time, he had spent four years in Europe, part of the time in Italy and Egypt filming Land of the Pharaohs (1955, WB) which proved to be major disappointment. Although Hawks pursued other projects during his European sojourn, nothing actually materialized, so that when he did get back to Hollywood, he was raring to go. The immense popularity of westerns on television at the time plus a desire by Hawks to do something that he felt comfortable with led to his decision to do a western for his next film.
That film was Rio Bravo, released in 1959 by Warner Brothers. At the time, it was noted as being, at best, “one of better class oaters of the year.” Over the intervening 40-odd years, its reputation has strengthened considerably. For some, it is the best of westerns; for others, it is the truest essence of Hawks’s work.
WB has now made Rio Bravo available on DVD in a fine-looking if spare edition.
John T. Chance, sheriff of the town of Rio Bravo, has Joe Burdett in jail for murder. Burdett’s brother, Nathan, blockades the town so that Chance can neither take his prisoner out nor get help in. Gunmen hired by Nathan Burdett make their way into town and await instructions from him.
Meanwhile, Chance has assistance from his deputy Stumpy and the town drunk Dude, a former deputy and gunslinger. Also forced to wait in the town by Burdett’s blockade are Pat Wheeler — a friend of Chance’s who’s trying to move a shipment of fuel and dynamite, Colorado — a young gunfighter guarding Wheeler’s shipment, and Feathers — an attractive young stagecoach passenger.
The first casualty of the stand-off is Wheeler who gets shot in the back by Burdett’s gunmen. Then Dude is captured and Nathan Burdett offers Chance a deal — Dude in exchange for his brother Joe. But the transaction doesn’t work out quite as planned, for either side.
I think the one word that most comes to mind when thinking about Rio Bravo is “comfortable.” The film plays out in a relaxed fashion, with familiar faces and familiar situations. The plot includes so many character conventions of the western that the film is almost a textbook of the genre in that sense. We’ve got the strong, silent hero (John Wayne as sheriff John T. Chance); the hero’s less-than-perfect friend (Dean Martin as Dude); the amusing sidekick (Walter Brennan as Stumpy); a woman of uncertain virtue who’s attracted to the hero (Angie Dickinson as Feathers); the young kid who’s really fast on the draw, and a singing cowboy to boot (Ricky Nelson as Colorado); the rich rancher who brings his power to bear in an effort to free a bullying younger brother who commits murder (John Russell as rancher Nathan Burdett and Claude Akins as younger brother Joe); even an overly-talkative, comic Mexican with an excitable wife (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Carlos and Estelita Rodriguez as, who else, Consuela). All these characters play out the film’s tale entirely in the town of Rio Bravo, with the bulk of the action centered on the jail, the hotel or one of several saloons. All these locations too are staple fare that we’ve long come to expect from westerns.
The effect of all this familiarity is to allow us to concentrate on the various characters and their interactions. In so doing, we readily recognize the characteristic individuals and relationships that one finds in so many of Howard Hawks’s films. These include the easy camaraderie between men with disparate backgrounds and abilities united in a common goal; the independent woman easily able to hold her own and more with men, yet never suggesting other than a strong, alluring femininity; the protagonist who marches very much according to his own drummer; and the protagonist’s quirky buddy whom you’re not entirely sure of until he comes through in the end. Rio Bravo can most closely be compared to Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Columbia) and To Have and Have Not (1944, WB) in these respects, as well as the later El Dorado (1966, Paramount, essentially a remake) and Rio Lobo (1970, National General).
Part of the familiarity and comfortableness of Rio Bravo is also obviously due to some of the casting. John Wayne as John T. Chance was by 1959 synonymous with the western and had previously starred in Hawks’s Red River (1948, UA). By the end of Wayne’s career, Hawks and John Ford would be the two directors with which his westerns would be most associated. His performance in Rio Bravo is perhaps the archetypical Wayne portrayal of the stalwart western hero. As with so much of Wayne’s work, he makes it look easy. Walter Brennan plays Stumpy — another in a long line of Brennan portrayals of animated, slightly querulous characters. Much of the comfort here comes from having seen him in similar situations in earlier Hawks films — as Eddie in To Have and Have Not and as Groot in Red River. Seeing the film in retrospect, both Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson are very familiar from their lengthy careers on television and to a lesser extent in films. Both are excellent here. John Russell and Claude Akins as the Burdett brothers are two well-seasoned western heavies and it’s great to see Bob Steele pop up as one of Burdett’s hired guns and Myron Healey as one of Burdett’s men in the bar scene after the livery stable shootout.
Warner Brothers’s DVD of Rio Bravo does a fine job of presenting the film. It’s an anamorphic transfer preserving the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and utilizing 41 scene selections. While the transfer is not as vibrant-looking as some of the best colour classics, colours are for the most part crisply and faithfully rendered. Nighttime scenes exhibit deep blacks and good shadow detail. There are occasional instances of edge enhancement, perhaps slightly more than I’ve come to expect from WB, but they’re not really bothersome. Overall, this is a good-looking transfer and certainly the best that Rio Bravo has looked on home video.
The sound is Dolby Digital mono and delivers the track quite satisfactorily, with virtually no evidence of age-related hiss. Dialogue is clear and distortion-free. Gunshots sound natural. A fine score by Dimitri Tiomkin is pleasantly if not expansively conveyed. Subtitles are provided in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
For a film of Rio Bravo‘s stature, I am quite disappointed in WB’s efforts on providing supplementary material for the film. We get what appears to be a theatrical re-issue trailer and some very nondescript, incomplete cast and director profiles. This film has been studied and written about extensively, so there’s lots of information out there to draw upon. A commentary by some film scholar should have been a given and it would also have been easy to construct an informative set of production notes. WB’s classic release schedule is drying up and so is the company’s supplement inspiration when it does deign to give us a title. It’s a sad time for WB classic film fans and there’s no sign if it getting any better!
This is one of the best classic westerns and if you’re a fan of the genre, the title should be in your collection. Fortunately, we’ve been given a fine looking and sounding DVD rendition of the film. Transfer-wise, it certainly doesn’t need to hide its head compared to some of the other fine DVDs of the films of John Wayne or Howard Hawks. On that basis alone, I have to recommend this DVD, even though I’m not pleased with the meager supplements.