Release Date(s)1959 (August 1, 2023)
Studio(s)Armada Productions/Warner Bros. (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
Howard Hawks is hardly the kind of filmmaker who could be termed reactionary, and yet the fact that he took offense at the way that other directors had portrayed western lawmen inspired not just of one his most popular efforts, Rio Bravo, but an entire loose trilogy of westerns that included El Dorado and Rio Lobo as well. All three films reworked some of the same basic story ideas and situations, but at their hearts, they were explorations of a theme that was near and dear to Hawks’ own heart: professionalism. It was the lack of professionalism displayed by High Noon’s Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) that had disturbed Hawks so much, as he explained to Joseph McBride in Hawks on Hawks:
“Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon. I saw High Noon at about the same time I saw another western picture, and we were talking about western pictures, and they asked me if I liked it, and I said, ‘Not particularly.’ I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running round town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn’t my idea of a western sheriff... While we were doing all this, they said, ‘Why don’t you make a picture the other way?’ And I said, ‘O.K.,’ and we made Rio Bravo the exact opposite from High Noon and this other picture, I think it was called 3:10 to Yuma.”
Interestingly enough, Hawks seems to have misunderstood the storyline for 3:10 to Yuma, because Dan Evans (Van Heflin) isn’t a lawman at all, but rather an ordinary rancher who’s been hired by the local marshal. Yet that’s still a case where a civilian has been drawn into a conflict where he doesn’t really belong, an idea that would form a core element in Rio Bravo and the two films that followed. Still, it was primarily High Noon that had annoyed Hawks, and it bothered his lead actor John Wayne as well—although for entirely different reasons. Wayne called High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” He was a staunch anti-communist, and his real issue with the film was the presence of blacklisted author Carl Foreman. Wayne even told an interviewer for Playboy in 1971 that “I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country.” Hawks was far less concerned with politics than he was with pragmatism; he asserted to McBride that “Our job is to make entertainment. I don’t give a God damn about taking sides.” That was true enough as far as politics was concerned, but when it came to professionals vs. civilians, Hawks always declared his side in no uncertain terms.
The story for Rio Bravo mixed correctives to everything that Hawks had disliked about High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma with an ending that had been conceived by his daughter Barbara (credited in the film as B.H. Campbell). Hawks turned to Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett to flesh out a screenplay, although it’s likely that his own uncredited hand was present in the final shooting script. After Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder, Joe’s brother Nathan (John Russell) and his hired guns end up laying siege to the entire town. Chance holes up at the jail, aided by his drunken deputy Dude (Dean Martin) and the cantankerous Stumpy (Walter Brennan). When Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) brings a wagon train of dynamite and other supplies into town, Wheeler tries to help, but Chance won’t allow a civilian to get involved in the conflict. Wheeler offers his own hired gun Colorado (Ricky Nelson) instead, but Colorado has his doubts. Meanwhile, an itinerant gambler named Feathers (Angie Dickinson) has been trapped in town as well, and she offers a different kind of help to Chance (over Chace’s strenuous objections). Tensions continue to simmer until everything resolves itself in explosive fashion—literally so, since Hawks wasn’t one to waste a perfectly good setup.
Rio Bravo helped to codify the concept of professionalism that Hawks had developed in earlier films like Only Angels Have Wings, but there was still some room for growth. He refined the idea further in the westerns that followed, with El Dorado arguably being his ultimate statement on the subject. In that film, professionalism has been fully divorced from its relationship to the law, with Wayne’s character Cole Thornton being a hired gun of his own. It’s Thornton’s skillset that defines who he is, not a tin star pinned to his chest. Thornton and his opponent Nelse McLeod (Christopher George) are birds of a feather in that regard, with the biggest difference between the two of them coming down to who they’re working for—if things had started out differently, they could have just as easily been compadres instead of foes. Still, Hawks did prefigure the relationship between them with one of the single most overlooked pairings in Rio Bravo: the one between Chance and Colorado. Since Ricky Nelson’s neophyte performance was understandably overshadowed by Dean Martin and Walter Brennan, it’s easy to miss the way that Colorado instantly gains Chance’s respect due to the fact that the young man doesn’t feel any need to prove how good that he actually is. El Dorado would offer a young gunfighter of its own (well, knife fighter, anyway) in the form of Mississippi (James Caan), but the intuitive bond between Chance and Colorado was more of an antecedent for the one involving Thornton and McLeod than it was for anything to do with Mississippi.
Of course, it’s understandable that Nelson has always gotten the short shrift in Rio Bravo, since Martin ended up giving one of his finest performances, while Brennan gleefully leapt over the line into self-parody and never looked back again. Yet all three of them are overshadowed by one of the most memorable Hawksian women of all time, as personified by the incandescent Dickinson. Feathers isn’t necessarily as strong of a character as some of the others were, especially since her toughness is defined entirely in terms of her devotion to a man. In El Dorado, Maudie (the underrated Charlene Holt) was a businessperson and a leading voice in her town, and she was easily able to navigate a triangle between Thornton and Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) while finding great amusement at their mutual discomfiture. Yet whatever relative weaknesses that Feathers may possess as a character, they evaporate every single time that Dickinson is on screen. She owned the camera, and while Wayne wasn’t known for having much in the way of romantic chemistry, the sparks really do fly between the two of them whenever they’re together.
While comparisons like these between Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo can be fascinating, it’s important to understand that they’re being offered here only to provide additional insight into how Rio Bravo fits into the rest of Hawks’ filmography. Howard Hawks devotees have been arguing the relative merits of these three films for decades, but ranking them against each other is a zero-sum game. It’s best to think of them as a unit, since none of them exist in a vacuum at this point in history. They all serve to illuminate each other, and every one if them has something of interest to offer. Rio Bravo was the start of a journey for Hawks, but it wasn’t the final destination. For true fans of the director, every stop along the way is a valuable one.
Cinematographer Russell Harlan shot Rio Bravo on 35 mm film using Mitchell BNC cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This 4K version was restored by Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging and Post Production Creative Services, in association with the Film Foundation. Other than that, there doesn’t appear to be much information available regarding the work that was done. Any damage has been completely removed, with nary a speckle left to be seen. Rio Bravo has never been the sharpest of films, but there are still incremental improvements in detail compared to Warner’s previous Blu-ray master. It’s more a matter of clarity than of increased resolution, with the text on the badges worn by Chance’s crew looking a bit crisper, and textures like the crosshatch pattern on Wheeler’s shirt looking slightly better defined. Any optical work like the opening titles or transitions naturally look much softer and smoother, and while most of the dissolves were cut into the surrounding shots, there are still a few of them that affect the entire leading and/or trailing shots.
The only real issue is that Warner Bros. elected to encode the 4K master to disc with a modest bitrate that averages in the 50-60Mbps range, rarely goes much higher than 75Mbps, and frequently dips below 40Mbps. Of course, the raw bitrate isn’t necessarily as important as is how well that that the compression was handled, but in this case, there are definitely some deficiencies in that regard. In the medium to long shots of Wheeler’s shirt, the textures are nicely defined when everything is static, but they can break up and smear when in motion. The grain is occasionally affected by the compression as well. As always, it’s worth remembering that most of these kinds of artifacts are only visible when viewed from up close on a larger screen, so they won’t be noticeable from normal viewing distances. Still, it’s disappointing that Warner Bros. wouldn’t pull out all the stops to ensure that Rio Bravo looks its best regardless of circumstances. Given the fact that the only extra on the disc is a commentary track, space shouldn’t have been a consideration.
Otherwise, the new High Dynamic Range grade (only HDR10 is included on the disc) provides some clear benefits. Harlan told American Cinematographer that he wanted an old-fashioned flavor, so he avoided letting the colors get too bold in favor of an almost sepia-toned look. This grade seems faithful to his intentions, favoring yellowish browns and tans throughout, interrupted only by some splashes of color in the costuming. Harlan also avoided day-for-night filtered cinematography, and insisted on shooting the nighttime exteriors in real darkness. That really shows in the expanded contrast range of HDR, with some nice deep blacks in those shots, which stands out against the sunbaked daytime exterior sequences. (The temperatures on locations in Tucson, AZ got as high as 124°.) The grade allows those daylight shots to get visually hot, just pushing the edge of blowing out some of the highlights, but never quite going too far. Questions about the bitrate aside, this is a beautiful presentation of Rio Bravo.
Primary audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. The dialogue is clear, there’s no background noise, and there’s little in the way of distortion, too. While Rio Bravo has never had much dynamic impact, there’s still a bit of punch to the gunfire and the explosions. The score by Hawks stalwart Dmitri Tiomkin, is reproduced well, even if the studio-recorded singing by Martin and Nelson doesn’t integrate naturally into the soundstage—it stands out like a sore thumb, in more ways than one. Additional audio options include French, German, Italian, Spanish (Spain), and Spanish (Latin America) 1.0 mono Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian SDH, Spanish (Spain), Dutch, Spanish (Latin America), Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Note that this Warner Bros. 4K Ultra HD release of Rio Bravo is UHD only—it doesn’t include a Blu-ray copy of the film, not even a reprinting of the previous disc. (More on that in a moment.) There is a Digital code on a paper insert tucked inside the case, however. The following archival extra is included:
- Audio Commentary by John Carpenter and Richard Schickel
John Carpenter was a natural for this commentary, given his love of Hawks and the fact that he borrowed heavily from Rio Bravo for Assault on Precinct 13, plus he’s also dipped into the Hawks well for films like Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. (Although even Carpenter has never really acknowledged that Precinct 13 owes just as much to El Dorado as it does to Rio Bravo.) Critic, historian, and filmmaker Richard Schickel was recorded separately, but the two of them are intercut fairly seamlessly—although it’s still a pretty laid-back track. They meander their way through giving various bits of biographical information, historical details, and production stories, as well as their thoughts about the film itself. Carpenter notes that Hawks always had his camera in the right place at the right time, which is interesting considering that Hawks told McBride that “I try to tell my story as simply as possible, with the camera at eye level. I just imagine the way that the story should be told, and I do it.” (Schickel adds that Hawks was a laconic man in life, and he was a laconic man with his camera as well.) Sometimes, simplicity is indeed best.
Aside from the commentary track, all of the rest of the extras from the previous Blu-ray are missing here. That includes Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked, and the 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks, plus trailers for The Big Stampede, Haunted Gold, Somewhere in Sonora, The Man from Monterey, and Rio Bravo. It’s understandable if Warner Bros. didn’t want to re-author them for the UHD, but it would have been a simple matter of including a copy of the old Blu-ray in the package instead. Some people might have complained that it wasn't the remastered version, but that’s still a valid way of carrying old extras forward onto new releases. Yet Warner Bros. wasn’t willing to go even that far. So what we have here is a great restoration, a less-than-great encode, and a disappointing slate of extras. Rio Bravo still looks wonderful in 4K, and this is definitely a recommended upgrade for fans, but it could have been so much more special if this release had been given a bit more love. There’s a still a market of passionate physical media fans out there who would have rewarded the attention.
- Stephen Bjork