Judge Ryan Keefer wonders aloud why this film wasn't called El Dorado. Wait, Robert Mitchum wasn't the drunk in this one, and John Wayne played John Wayne in both.
"Aw, I'm not gonna hurt him."
-- Sheriff John T. Chance, after hitting a man in the face with a shotgun barrel.
Just when everyone thought that John Wayne peaked after The Searchers, along came Rio Bravo, a film that pairs him with some younger acting talents, and re-teams him with another one of cinema's great directors. After a rather shabby initial edition, the film has been re-released, not only with some weightier extras, but also to accommodate the next-generation hardware owners who have wanted some more classics on high definition. So does it not only pass muster in high definition, but is it worth double-dipping?
Facts of the Case
In Rio Bravo, adapted from B.H. McCampbell's short story by Jules Furthman (Mutiny on the Bounty) and directed by Howard Hawks (The Thing from Another World), Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, who captures Joe Burdette (Claude Akins, The Defiant Ones), who murdered a man. Chance decides to hold him in his jail to wait for the U.S. Marshal to pick him up. However Burdette's brother Nathan (John Russell, Pale Rider) looks to free his brother from the jail, no matter the price in gold pieces or hired mercenaries. So Chance, his friend, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin, The Young Lions) and the elderly man Stumpy (Walter Brennan, How the West Was Won) keep Joe in jail, while preventing attempts to free Burdette. A young gunfighter named Colorado (Ricky Nelson, Love and Kisses) helps Chance but does so as part of an effort to avenge the death of Wheeler (Ward Bond, The Searchers), presumably at the hands of Burdette's men.
I honestly didn't know what to think of Rio Bravo. I mean, I'm gaining valuable knowledge and experience with John Wayne westerns as a member of the DVD Verdict legal team, but I wasn't really all too familiar with the directorial works of Hawks. And for newer fans of the western who expect to see a lot of shootouts and action, you might be disappointed here, and some of said shootouts are accompanied by what could only be called a modern sort of one-liner or comedic repartee.
On the plus side though, for those expecting an action film and were let down, what actually comes from the film is an interesting character segment that provides a more compelling interaction into Dude's redemption, downfall and, to a lesser extreme, his resurrection. On a scale of one to ten, he starts out the film at a two, then moves into a seven or eight, falls back down again to a three or four, and at the end of the film goes slightly toward a six or so. As Chance, Wayne is the quiet understated force that commands respect, but it's Martin's performance that winds up being the pleasant surprise.
>From a technical perspective, this 1.85:1 VC-1 encoded transfer might not be as sharp as The Searchers, and westerns do give the world another reason to appreciate browns and light greens, and Wayne's shirt is always a barometer for the color palette of the film. Here the blue of Wayne's shirt in the second half of the film really does pop, and it's safe to say that the film hasn't looked better. From an audio point of view, all the sound that's available are mono tracks, and the film sounds real weak, weaker than a lot of other older films with mono tracks, but the dialogue sounds lighter to boot. I wasn't expecting much, but calling it adequate is a small stretch.
The extras on the disc are similar to those in the standard definition version. Starting things off, there's a commentary with film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter, whose Assault on Precinct 13 is a nod to Hawks. It would have been nice to have them play off one another, but Schickel provides the historical context and Carpenter provides more of the technical detail (which Schickel does from time to time also). Even with Carpenter (an active commentary participant on DVD), Schickel still remains the least liveliest of the pair and there are prolonged periods of silence that diminish the track a little bit, but to listen to is still good. From there, "Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo" is a look at the making of the film with interviews from Carpenter and other directing contemporaries like Walter Hill and Peter Bogdanovich. Obviously this piece focuses more on the production of the film, and includes recollections by some of the cast who are still with us, along with an archived interview of Hawks. It's the usual trip through the film by experts and historians, but does shed some light on the film itself. There is a separate hour-long piece on Hawks' career, filmed in 1973 and includes a lot of participation by the director. Perhaps not coincidentally, the feature was put together by Schickel, but this feature appears new and is narrated by Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter). It covers most of Hawks' work quite well and is frequently interspersed with Hawks' recollections on his films. I've gotta say, in knowing him from just one film before, to see the diversity in his work really is commendable, I've developed a new appreciation for him. And as is the case with most westerns, there's a modern examination of the locations in the film from decades prior, to see how much has changed, and finally there are trailers for several of Wayne's films, including this one.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Understanding that the film was done in an area where a theme song or two was required viewing, seeing Martin and Nelson in a duet while Wayne watches seems like it's supposed to give you a reason to root for their characters. But since we're in a world of hollow entertainment double threats, this was the only part I found myself skipping through, because I'm cynical and it annoyed me. And as Feathers, Angie Dickinson may look good (her resemblance to Julia Roberts is striking, and this was long before Dressed to Kill), but her role appears rather wasted to me.
Where the initial version of Rio Bravo was barren of extras, and besides the fact that it's in high definition, this one has some decent bonus material. Topical fans of the genre should experience this at least once, and fans of the film that want the definitive version shouldn't be hesitant to pick this up.
The court's repeated acquittal of the Duke's films continues here. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with John Carpenter and Richard Schickel
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