Rio Bravo Review

There are better films than Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo but there aren't many which are more entertaining. It's not the greatest Western ever made and it doesn't change the genre in any significant way, but its iconic characterisation, emotional sweep and good humour make it a classic of fifties cinema. It's also one of the most influential films ever made, acting as a blueprint for more buddy movies and cop thrillers than just about any other single work.

The story is elegantly simple. Sherrif John T.Chance (Wayne) and his alcoholic deputy Dude (Martin) attend a bar fight in which the boorish Joe Burdette (Akins) shoots a man in cold blood. They take him in and imprison him while they wait the long six days for the US Marshal to arrive. Meanwhile, Burdette's allies, including his brother Nathan (Russell), watch and wait for the moment when they will be able to spring Joe from jail and regain their fearsome reputation. Chance refuses to beg anyone for more help and relies instead on the only people he can trust; Dude,on the wagon but hardly stable, aged Stumpy (Brennan), still a crack shot but unable to walk in a straight line, and youngster Colorado (Nelson), a young buck whose initial instinct to mind his own business is tested when his mentor, Chance's old friend Pat Wheeler, is killed by Burdette's men. Chance is also assisted by the gorgeously feisty good-time girl Heathers (Dickinson) and some comic relief in the shape of Mexican hotelier Carlos. The tension gradually builds to a kinetic climax involving a gunfight amid several kegs of dynamite.

Howard Hawks conceived the film as a deliberate riposte to Fred Zinnemann's somewhat overrated High Noon. Although he liked the tension of the film, he couldn't bear the idea of Gary Cooper running around a town looking for help when he was quite obviously able to cope with the bad guys on his own. So he chose a hero who was happy to accept any useful help but didn't want anyone who he was going to have to carry. But Hawks then raises the stakes by making it as much a film about loyalty and friendship as it is about John Wayne versus the bad guys. The emotional centre of the film is Dean Martin's character Dude, the fallen hero seeking redemption, and his touching relationship with the Sheriff. As Hawks said in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, "The crux of Rio Bravo is not Wayne; it is Dean Martin's story - everything happens because of the drunk." Hence the lengthy opening sequence of Dude's drunken encounter with Burdette and Chance's attempt to recover his friend's dignity. There is a strong sense of the primal poetry of male comradeship in this film, as there is in Ford's Cavalry Trilogy and Hawks's earlier triumph Red River, and it's this aspect of the movie that points forward clearly to the work of Sam Peckinpah, a director whom Hawks never appreciated but who obviously took up his mantle as a late master of the genre. What keeps Pike Bishop and the rest of his Wild Bunch together is loyalty, the past and an unsentimental love for each other, and it's exactly the same feelings which keep Chance and Dude together as well. What makes the film exciting, however, is the way Hawks and his screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (who co-wrote The Big Sleep and achieved late career fame with her last script, for a little number called The Empire Strikes Back) keep several balls in the air; the tension over Burdette, Dude's efforts not to drink, the relationship between Dude and Chance, the role of the woman and the classic theme of the brave men fighting against the forces of corruption. The blending of all these themes with some classic situations has been an influence on many other directors - John Carpenter more than most, since his riveting thriller Assault On Precinct 13 is strongly endebted to this movie - but Hawks directs with a sense of style that would be hard to beat. Little touches abound to add class - the drops of blood which reveal a killer waiting above, the patrol of the town after dark when danger lurks in the shadows, the playing of the Mexican song 'Deguello' on Burdette's orders - the title meaning no mercy and no quarter for the vanquished. It's a long film but the pacing is so perfect that it seems to be over much too quickly.

The two stars are, as you might expect, above criticism. Although John Wayne had played this sort of heroic, upstanding character many times before and was to go on to play it again and again for the rest of his career, there is a sort of mythic purity about the role here which makes it the final word on the character type. Perhaps there is a stereotyping here, one on which Hawks deliberately plays, but the warmth, humour and basic decency was rarely exploited so well. Perhaps it's the sheer banality of heroism which is so touching - Chance is an ordinary man who just wants a nice simple life. The intriguing flip side of this was Ethan Edwards in The Searchers of course, a man whose quest for the simple life became obsessively misanthropic. Wayne relishes the character of Chance and it's nice to see him handling comedy with such elan, especially compared to the heavy handed slapstick comedy which was so plodding in The Quiet Man. In the manner of all great movie stars, he makes what he does look so damned easy. It obviously helps in this film that he has an equally charismatic actor to play off. Dean Martin, an ice-cool professional who turned a drunk act into a whole career, is brilliant as Dude, making him equally pathetic and sympathetic. His virtually wordless performance in the opening scene is masterly and he keeps the audience interested in what is basically a very familiar stock character. Oddly enough, the only time Martin rings false is in the obligatory song sequence, which seems to have sneaked in from another film entirely. Not only is the song totally out of period, his way of singing is more reminisicent of Las Vegas than the frontier. The two stars dominate the film but the supporting cast is full of interest for lovers of the genre. We have Walter Brennan as Stumpy, another case of an actor taking a stereotyped role played in a million films and giving the definitive delivery of it. Brennan's performance is very clever, concealing guile and resourcefulness underneath bluster and bad jokes. John Russell is a scarily rational villain, willing to do anything to maintain his reputation and always with an eye on the main chance. There are nice touches from Claude Akins and the John Ford regular Ward Bond and a typical Hawksian heroine in Angie Dickinson's tough, sexy Heathers. I particularly relish the scene where she has a drunken rant at Chance, much to his amusement. The weak link in the cast is Ricky Nelson, cast in order to capitalise on his musical career. Hawks said later "I imagine he added a million and a half to the picture's gross". Nelson isn't exactly bad but he is grimly expressionless and that's a serious drag on some of the later scenes. Not quite enough to drag this wonderful film down from a 10 to a 9 but it's a close thing, especially when he starts singing. The casting of Nelson is more obviously a flaw when you watch El Dorado and see how much better James Caan does with a similar part.

All of Hawks's collaborators come up trumps here - the photography and editing are first rate. But the love of the genre which informs Rio Bravo is the most memorable pleasure. The cliched situations, like the characters, are lent new life through imaginative direction and careful dialogue. It's as if Hawks had decided to take everything he loved about the classic Western and put it into one single film. There's no real debunking of myth here - certainly not compared to later Ford or Peckinpah - nor is there the sense of death and elegaic sadness which dominates the later El Dorado, but instead we get a glorious celebration of the Hollywood Western, which may well be why so many directors name it as one of their favourite genre films. Hawks seems to genuinely like his characters here and he allows them to overcome their doubts and failings and ultimately win the day. The affection between the central characters later became a genre in itself of course - it's hard not to see this as the archetypal buddy film and it's still one of the best. Rio Bravo came along during the twilight of the great years of the Hollywood studios and it seems to sum up everything that the "dream factory" could do best. When Hollywood wasn't trying to produce ersatz art in imitation of a European tradition it didn't understand, it could produce art which was just as pure and just as glorious as anything produced elsewhere and Rio Bravo is one of the pinnacles of that achievement. Robin Wood called it the film which justified Hollywood and, despite the typical overstatement, he's right. Critical faculties fail in the face of this film. Engage eyes and ears, sit back, relax and wallow.

The Disc

Given one of the true masterpieces of their back catalogue, you would expect Warners to provide a mouth-watering two-disc special edition with a gorgeous new transfer and lots of lovely extras, right ? Wrong. We get a pretty good visual transfer, acceptable sound quality and a trailer. Oh, and music over the static main menu. Meanwhile, they've released yet another special edition of The Matrix. Is there any sanity in the world ?

The picture quality, in all fairness, is pretty good. We're not talking orgasmically gorgeous on the order of North By Northwest or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, but it is clear, sharp and clean. There is some grain present, especially noticable in the brighter exterior scenes as it was in Dirty Harry, but the beautifully rich colours make up for this. Some artifacting
is visible in the night scenes but this is not a serious problem compared to, for example, the rampant blocky artifacts which plague Universal's R2 disc of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. A certain softness become apparent at times but, again, nothing too serious to mar your enjoyment. The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1.

The only soundtrack is the original Mono track. This is exactly as it should be in my opinion - I don't much like remixes of mono films - and it's absolutely fine. It would appear that the original sound materials have been kept in better condition than is the case with some other fifties films - Vera Cruz for example.

The original trailer is as amusingly over the top as most other film advertising of the period and in surprisingly good condition.

There are static menus backed by Dimitri Tiomkin's infuriatingly catchy theme music and a generous 41 chapter stops.

Yet again, a great movie gets a perfunctory but acceptable DVD release. Warners need to wake up to the fact that their vaults contain an awful lot of treasures which are being junked on DVD when they should be leading the label's archive releases. Yes, Citizen Kane is a marvellous disc, but there are those of us who think the best of Hawks - or Ford and Peckinpah come to that - is just as good as the best of Welles, if not better, and that it deserves the same loving care when it comes to DVD release. However, I can't end a review of Rio Bravo on a negative note. This film would be worth seeing in fuzzy black and white on a seven inch telly. Buy this DVD if you love American film making but also pray that Warners will eventually give it the special edition it deserves.

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