A bona fide classic and one of the greatest westerns of all time, 1959's Rio Bravo possesses an inimitable quality that transcends the sum of its parts. The film, which now finally gets its due in a two-DVD special edition, has an enduring appeal that is almost magical. It is perhaps the most personal film of legendary director Howard Hawks, whose thematic obsessions -- male bonding during times of crisis, the importance of professionalism and responsibility -- take center stage in this tale of a sheriff under siege in a sleepy Texas border town.
The joy of Rio Bravo involves the happy alchemy of various elements coming together. It is quintessential John Wayne, who turned in one of his most beloved performances as the aforementioned lawman, John T. Chance. The movie is exciting, heartwarming, funny and romantic. Most important, Rio Bravo soars on the strength of an intangible but powerful charm. While the western includes the requisite shoot-'em-up action, its tone is languorous, almost luxuriant; Hawks and his first-rate cast are confident in their ability to entertain, and that self-assuredness propels the film forward with the relaxed swagger of, well, John Wayne.
The story is wonderfully simple. Presumably set in the 1860s, it begins when Sheriff Chance arrests and locks up dastardly Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder. Joe's wealthy brother, Nathan (John Russell), is determined to keep Joe from being turned over to U.S. marshals; he hires scores of gunmen to bottle up the town and keep the pressure on Chance.
The sheriff, for his part, doesn't have much in the way of backup: only Dude (Dean Martin), his drunk of a deputy; and a cantankerous old man nicknamed Stumpy (Walter Brennan). A friend of Chance's who is passing through town, Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond, in his final film), is incredulous. "A bum-legged old man and a drunk -- that all you got?" Pat asks, offering up his men to help Chance in the standoff. But the sheriff is resolute. "That's what I've got," he says, politely rejecting the offer of "well-meaning amateurs."
Shortly thereafter, Pat is fatally shot by one of Burdette's gunmen. In the wake of the slaying, Pat's gun-for-hire, a cool young gunslinger named Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson), comes forward to stand with Chance and his men. Amid the building tensions, the sheriff finds time to strike up a budding romance with Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a leggy beauty whom Chance initially mistakes for a card cheat.
The idea for Rio Bravo famously stemmed from Hawks' distaste for another western, 1952's High Noon. In that classic film, Gary Cooper played a sheriff unable to get the backing of townspeople as he faces an imminent showdown with the bad guys. That premise stuck in Hawks' craw. "I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him," he explained years later. "That isn't my idea of a good western sheriff."
If Hawks was motivated by dislike for another movie, it sure doesn't show. He took on Rio Bravo four years after the last film he had made, Land of the Pharaohs, met lukewarm reviews and box-office. A western provided the perfect canvas for his kind of story. And it certainly didn't hurt that television in the late Fifties was awash in westerns, which only buffeted Hawks' conviction that audiences were drawn to characters, not necessarily plot.
And Rio Bravo certainly wins with likable, interesting characters. Despite Hawks' feelings about the sheriff in High Noon, John T. Chance is not a go-it-alone type of hero. However grudgingly, he accepts the help of Dude, Colorado, Stumpy and Feathers -- all of whom play instrumental roles in keeping the bad guys at bay.
The Howard Hawks universe isn't one of self-absorption and self-interest. Rio Bravo is rife with small, lovely moments that reveal the depth of concern that its characters have for one another. Feathers, a shotgun across her lap, keeps guard in front of a hotel room so that Chance can sleep in peace. When Dude is miserable with the shakes and pounds his own leg in frustration. Chance and Stumpy share a quick look that speaks volumes about the bond these men share. Throughout the film, Hawks consistently showcases the group dynamic through medium shots and long takes. Surprising (and somewhat ballsy) for its genre, much of the movie's two-hour, 20-minute running time is of characters talking.
Of course, the director also knows when to can the chatter. Rio Bravo's justly celebrated opening scene conveys character and plot without a single word. Dude combs the saloon in search of someone who will buy him a drink. He is spotted by Joe Burdette, who taunts the man by tossing a coin in a spittoon. Desperate and craving booze, Dude crouches, and is about to reach in for the money when the spittoon is kicked away by Sheriff Chance. Dude is humiliated; he punches Chance in the face before himself being pummeled by Burdette and two of his goons. Then a bystander steps in to help -- only to be shot dead by Burdette. No word is uttered. It is a scene of cinematic virtuosity.
The cast is mostly terrific. Brennan could do this shtick in his sleep, but he was never funnier than as the always-complaining Stumpy. Rio Bravo marked the filmic pinnacle for Martin, who successfully immersed himself in the role. Studio boss Jack Warner didn't even recognize the Rat Packer in his grubby costume. "We hired Dean Martin," Warner told Hawks after watching part of the movie. "When's he going to be in this picture?"
Hawks answered, "He's the funny-looking guy in the old hat."
Warner was shocked. "Holy smoke. Is that Dean Martin?"
Wayne is simply magnificent. The phrase "comfortable in his own skin" applies to many of the Duke's performances, but that level of self-confidence is particularly apt in Rio Bravo. Wearing a battered hat and with his ever-trusty rifle by his side, Wayne exudes integrity and unambiguous moral rectitude.
But it's also a performance of warmth and comic shadings. He practices a sort of "tough love" with the embattled Dude. "Be nice to him (Dude) and he'll fall apart in small pieces," the sheriff tells Stumpy. Elsewhere, Wayne -- er, Chance -- tweaks his own macho image. Amid Stumpy's incessant complaints that he is taken for granted, Chance calls the old man "a small treasure" and kisses him on top of the head before rushing out of the jail.
For this reviewer, the casting's only hiccups are Nelson and Dickinson. Ricky Nelson was riding high at the time as a rock 'n' roll heartthrob, but the baby-faced teen isn't quite convincing as a cocky gunslinger. But, hey, he and Dino get props for a nifty duet on "My Rifle, My Pony and Me."
Dickinson's performance is more problematic. She actually does an admirable job filling the archetype of the Hawks woman -- wisecracking, independent, tough and sexy -- but her chemistry with Wayne feels somewhat rushed and artificial.
But that's quibbling. In the end, Rio Bravo is a story about self-actualization. The primary good guys -- Chance, Dude, Stumpy, Colorado and Feathers - are given the opportunity to prove their mettle as reliable, competent and decent. In the parlance of the film, the greatest virtue is to be "good," a word that even takes on a sort of mystical trait here. Well, Rio Bravo is as good as they come.
Disc One includes the feature film, commentary and collection of John Wayne trailers. The other special features are on Disc Two. The edition includes an insert of eight glossy black-and-white photographs from the film production. Both discs are housed in a plastic keepcase with a paper sleeve.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, this is a beautiful print transfer and an improvement on Rio Bravo's previous DVD incarnation. The picture is mostly clean and clear, devoid of artifacts and boasting vivid colors that attest to Russell Harlan's gorgeous cinematography.
The single-channel audio track is flat, but it gets the job done. There is no distortion or drop-off, and dialogue is clear.
Subtitles are available in English, French, Portugese and Korean. Only Korean and Portugese subtitles are available on Disc Two.
A nice array. Narrated by Sydney Pollack and produced, written and directed by Time film critic Richard Schickel, The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (54:57) is a real treat for cineastes, providing a thorough and entertaining excursion through the filmmaker's storied career. The 1973 documentary includes interview segments with Hawks and clips from many of his works.
Commemoration: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (33:17) is another excellent featurette that includes interviews with Dickinson and such Hawks aficionados as Peter Bogdanovich, Walter Hill and John Carpenter (whose Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976 was a remake of Rio Bravo) and film historian James D'Arc. The documentary boasts plenty of great anecdotes.
The third featurette, Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked (8:30), is a so-so portrait of the Arizona movie set where Hawks shot Rio Bravo and two other motion pictures that riffed on it, 1966's El Dorado and 1970's Rio Lobo.
Richard Schickel and John Carpenter reveal a genuine love for the film in their commentary, but the track is hampered by some long stretches of dead air. The two apparently recorded their tracks separately, since there is no interaction between them.
Also included is a John Wayne trailer gallery.
What's there to say? Rio Bravo is wonderfully entertaining, a movie classic that just gets better with repeated viewings. Warner Brothers finally gives the film the treatment it deserves in an edition worthy of the DVD Talk Collector Series.