One of the finest pieces of filmmaking saddles up for a fitting and long-awaited 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, and Walter Brennan hold the fort in this iconic Western filled with action, drama, romance, comedy, and a couple of great tunes. Now on 4K, the film looks and sounds better than ever with an amazing new transfer and an excellent mono audio mix. Bonus features are tragically slim, but this disc is worth it. Highly Recommended
Some films stand the test of time for the simple reason they’re just damned good. Sometimes it’s lightning in a bottle and everything comes together for a filmmaker or an actor right from the start. Sometimes it simply boils down to honing your craft for decades culminating in the perfect alliance of raw talent and experience. John Wayne certainly earned his star status on Westerns starting with Stagecoach. Howard Hawks was a master of every genre seamlessly sliding from Dramas to Comedies to Science Fiction to Westerns with ease. After the thrilling Red River, Hawks and Wayne would reteam for Rio Bravo, a film that would not only be the thematic antithesis of High Noon but would become one of the defining entries of the Western genre.
In a small dusty Texas town, Sheriff John Chance (John Wayne) has got himself bottlenecked. Sitting in his jail, he holds Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) on a charge of murder. All along the streets and just outside town are the hired guns of Joe’s brother Nathan (John Russell) making sure Chance can’t get Joe out of town. Backing his play is his best friend and recovering drunk Dude (Dean Martin), the young-buck gunfighter Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a shady sultry gambler called Feathers (Angie Dickinson), and the lame-legged codger Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Anyone in town that tries to help risks getting shot. Before the U.S. Marshal arrives to extradite Joe, there’s going to be blood in the streets of old Rio Bravo.
Wanye and Hawks’ mutual dislike for High Noon are well documented. Wayne may have disliked it for political reasons going on to call the film’s revisionist anti-Macarthism tones “un-American” and even worked to help blacklist its writer Carl Foreman. Hawks, on the other hand, wasn’t a fan of Gary Cooper showing such weakness as a character that constantly demanded help or needed saving. Together they schemed a response film that would see Wayne stand tall as a stalwart figure of bravery in the face of danger never asking for help from anyone who couldn’t ably provide and through Ward Bond’s Pat Wheeler, showcase the dangers of trying to help. It can be endlessly debated which is the better film, but at the end of the hour, genre fans wound up with two of the greatest Westerns ever filmed. Similar in setup but vastly different in approach, I love both High Noon and Rio Bravo equally albeit for different reasons.
Speaking as a fan of the actor and the genre he most prominently worked in, John Wayne is certainly a problematic historical figure, but he was a solid performer. He had a character he could play to the hilt and he stuck with it through most of his career. With that in mind, I’d say he was really only as good as the writer and director behind the camera. If it wasn’t John Ford then it’d be Howard Hawks giving Wayne’s signature character some genuine range. Hawks proved to be a master craftsman on this show letting every character have a defining moment. Working from an excellent screenplay from Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, Hawks’ film can feel languid sliding along from one scene to the next while also feeling swift and breathless. It’s a film that’s comfortable letting the seconds slowly tick by because the hours are going fly like a bullet. Populated with classic archetypal characters, sets were even built to 7/8 scale so they’d feel larger than life.
One of the things I enjoy about Hawks’s films is the presence of sexuality without sex. From Rosalind Russell in From His Girl Friday to Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not to Margaret Sheridan in The Thing From Another World to Angie Dickinson here in Rio Bravo, these are strong, well-written female characters who exude their own overt (often playful) sexuality. Sultry and seductive, sure, but they’re not there simply to be objects of desire or a plot-point distraction to be saved. They often hold their own in the face of danger and even regularly have a one-up over their male counterparts. Whether it’s Dickinson’s Feathers prodding Wayne’s Chance about a pair of bloomers or daring him to search her for an extra set of Aces, she’s always got his number - while even peeling off some of the same dialog as Bacall.
John Wayne may get top billing, but it’s his future Katie Elder brother Dean Martin that gives the film its heart and soul as Dude. His recovering “Borracho” instigates the film’s plot as he’s about to dip his hand into a spittoon for a silver dollar, but he’s also pivotal for other characters' growth fully redeeming himself as a hero for the film's climax. Chance is his friend and ready to do what’s right, but it’s Dude’s recovery that prompts Chance to soften a little and even appreciate the affections of a gal like Feathers.
Rounding out Wayne’s backup, Ricky Nelson may not have been Hawks’ first choice of Elvis Presley (thanks Tom Parker), but he was a suitable replacement. Hawks apparently didn’t feel Nelson was old enough and was too boyish to be believable, but when he’s not smoothly strumming the guitar, he proves he's more than able with a pair of six-shooters. Then there’s the lovable Walter Brennan as Stumpy. He’s there for the comic relief but his antics work because he’s the sane one often saying what everyone in the audience is already thinking. Bit players but fun additions nonetheless are Pedro Gonzalas and Estelita Rodriguez dueling married hotel operators Carlos and Consuelo Robante. Each of them scores a few minutes of screentime to shine. For a bit of fun keep an eye out for the likes of Harry Carry Jr (most of his scenes were cut, but he’s there in the background), Walter Barnes, and Myron Healey among numerous familiar Western faces
It’s been so long now I don’t recall when I first caught Rio Bravo; I guess it’s long enough now to say I’ve always been a fan. Growing up in an Eastwood house, I do know it was the first John Wayne western I’d ever seen because it was a genuine rarity. As one of the few films I come back to multiple times a year, for me, it’s one of the few perfect films that's ever been made. It’s got action and adventure, suspense, rich character drama, comedy, and romance, and it even takes some time to pause the show for a musical intermission before the action picks up for the third act. The only thing it doesn’t have - and for the better - is an annoying kid that needs rescuing. Now archived and enshrined in the National Film Registry, Rio Bravo is a true classic of the genre.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Rio Bravo saddles up for its first ride on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a single disc 4K UHD + Digital set. Pressed on a Region Free BD-66 disc, the disc is housed in a standard black case. My review copy didn’t include a slipcover, but all of the other WB releases of late have had them so I’m assuming retail copies will. The disc loads to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Well, this has been a damned long time coming. After living with a Blu-ray release that offered minimal of any upgrade over the DVD, we finally have one of the greatest Westerns looking sparkling sharp and clean like a newly minted penny. While there are still age-related hallmarks of softness around transitions and fades, but damn, this is a gorgeous HDR10 transfer. This leaves me excited to see what Warner may be planning for a new run at John Ford’s The Searchers if and when the time should come.
The details are simply amazing. Rough scraggly facial features, the wear, and tear in Dude’s coat or Chance’s hat, and the film’s impressive production design often looks stunning. With a thin natural sense of film grain, the film simply hasn’t ever looked better on home video. I loved being able to see even the smallest details like the makeup work that was supposed to pass off as mud on Dean Martin’s face or the texture in Claude Atkins’ cowhide vest.
The HDR10 grade is on point without being overly aggressive or pushed too hot. The film has always had a strong yellow/brown overtone to it and that’s been maintained. While the favored color scheme, reds, and blues are lovely. Reds are terrific with blood the appropriate crimson. Blue eyes practically sparkle in the sun-drenched scenery. Black levels are deep and inky with excellent shadow delineation. There are several moments that stand out but when Ward Bond is leading that freight outfit into town the sense of three-dimensional depth was simply jaw-dropping.
The only iffy aspect of this transfer is something that can’t be fixed and that’s those previously mentioned transitions. Sometimes it’s beautifully seamless like when Chance takes the package into Carlos. Others like at the beginning when Chance and Dude drag off an unconscious Joe Burdette are notably rough-looking. But that spot and others have always looked a little dodgy - so I can’t fault the restoration effort for not being able to do any better than what’s been done. All around this is a striking transfer well worth celebrating.
Proving the point of just how lackluster that previous Blu-ray was, that disc was stuck with an unfortunate Dolby Digital mono track that lacked any real resonance. Dialog, music, and sound effects had a sort of inorganic hollow quality. I always felt like I had to compensate by pushing the volume up. Out of habit, I did that for this disc and I quickly realized I didn’t need to at all. All of those issues have been fixed thanks to this new DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. The first notes of that easy-going score by Dimitri Tiomkin are your first best indicators of what’s to come. The near-silent opening of just sound effects and music is splendid - and once John Wayne saunters in with the first spoken line of “Joe, you’re under arrest.” the film is off to the races. Free of any hiss or age-related issues, dialog is crystal clear, gunshots and sound effects have plenty of power and oomph, and again the score by Tiomkin and Martin and Nelson’s runs for My Rifle My Pony and Me and Get Along Home Cindy sound terrific.
Wish all could be sunshine and roses for the bonus features, but as has been the case now with a few of these Warner Bros. classics on 4K, the bonus features content has been stripped back. While we do get the best piece, John Carpenter and Richard Schickel’s audio commentary, we miss out on the 1973 Howard Hawks documentary, the Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked. In all, that’s about an hour and forty minutes of missing extra content. Again, that commentary track is the best and at least we do get that, but it’s a damned shame those featurettes and documentaries are missing.
Rio Bravo is so good, Hawks and Wayne would even remake it twice with subtle alterations in Rio Lobo and El Dorado - then John Carpenter would even give the setup a go for Assault on Precinct 13. The film may have something of a controversial (at least to some) background, but it successfully helped define the Western genre archetype. Front to back, it’s perfect entertainment. Nearly 65 years later, the film is just as thrilling with crackling dialog performed by a cast at the top of their game. Now on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, fans of this classic have something to celebrate with a gorgeous new transfer and a healthy new audio mix to match. Bonus features are sadly stripped down to only the excellent audio commentary, so if you need those missing docs and featurettes, keep that old disc around for posterity. But if you’re like me and have been waiting for a worthy upgrade, the wait’s been worth it. Highly Recommended