When I picked up Rio Bravo – Ultimate Collector’s Edition to review, I realized I had never seen a John Wayne movie. “The Duke” starred in well over 100 films, so I was more than a little surprised at this gaping hole in my viewing repertoire. Then I looked up director Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep) and discovered another long list of films I’ve overlooked. Defensively, I asked myself whether I was really missing out. Could their old movies be worth my time so many years later?
If Rio Bravo is any indication, their films are absolutely worth watching, though they’re perhaps not as masterful as they’re reputed to be. No matter your opinion, this Ultimate Collector’s Edition is one fine DVD set.
Rio Bravo (1959) stars John Wayne as John T. Chance, a small town sheriff facing the fight of his life. His town is infected by a gang of 30-40 men, professional bad guys on the payroll of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), whose brother, Joe, Chance has locked up for murder. Burdette is dead-set on freeing Joe, and the only help Chance has got is his former deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), who’s been drunk for two years since he got involved with the wrong kind of woman, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), an old, trigger-happy cripple. The trio has six days until the U.S. Marshall comes to collect Joe, but that’s a long time to wait when you’re surrounded by the enemy.
When a wagon train rolls into town, Chance meets up with an old friend and his newly hired guard, Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a cocky young man with a quick draw. The old friend wants to help, but Burdette finds out and has him killed. That leaves Colorado angry, and looking for work — could be the sheriff has an opening for another deputy, but Chance isn’t eager to endanger civilians. Plus, Chance is a little distracted by Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a pretty woman who rolled in with the wagon train. As their relationship begins to spark, the tension between Chance and Berdette’s gang continues to rise. It looks like there’s only one way this is going to end — with plenty of gun smoke and dead men.
The film is pretty simple in a lot of ways. The plot’s straightforward, the location is small and the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn. There’s also no mystery for the viewers. We know there’s going to be a major confrontation at the end; the only real question is who’s going to die. We also know Chance is going to fall for and end up with Feathers, we’re certain Dude will rise above his alcoholism to help save the day, and we definitely expect Colorado to jump in with guns blazing.
The complexity and sheer entertainment value come from the performances, a great script and Hawks’ direction. John Wayne is obviously a veteran doing his thing, straight-laced and tough in the face of trouble. Dean Martin is surprisingly good as Dude, showing a pretty wide range as he takes the character on a journey to sobriety and redemption. Angie Dickinson, while in fewer scenes, makes good use of every frame as she seeks to net herself a sheriff. Even young Ricky Nelson is strong here, with a cocky air about him that’s perfect for his supporting character. Above all, though, the key performance is Walter Brennan’s, whose crotchety character provides comic relief and the glue that holds the good guys’ team together.
Then there’s the script. Screenwriters Jules Ferthman (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Leigh Brackett (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back) took a simple story and filled it with excellent dialogue. There are many memorable lines shared between the characters, with Chance’s exchanges with Feathers and with Dude being the strongest. There are no complicated speeches or lengthy statements here, just efficient, effective dialogue with a touch of panache.
As for Hawks’ direction, it’s clear the man had a good eye and great instinct. His career began in the days before dialogue, and it shows in Rio Bravo, with plenty of non-verbal communication, meaningful gestures and well-directed movement. You get a feel for Hawks’ style right off the bat, with an eventful opening scene that runs four or five minutes without a word being spoken.
Alas, Rio Bravo is not a perfect film. The main problem is length. The film clocks in at just about 2.5 hours, at least 30 minutes longer than it needed to be. If it were remade today, Rio Bravo would wrap up under two hours, and still cover the same ground. The pace is just too slow for modern audiences, and it rambles too much for its simple story.
So Rio Bravo is a straightforward, well-acted and well-directed western that builds off a great script. How’s this Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD set?
Rio Bravo – Ultimate Collector’s Edition is a two-disc release, with the film on disc one and special features on disc two. The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen format, preserving the aspect ratio of its original theatrical version. Newly restored for this release – and the two-disc special edition available without the commemorative pressbook, lobby cards and reprinted comic – the film looks excellent for its age. The transfer is free of compression issues, and the source film was obviously meticulously prepared. Colours are natural and consistent, though slightly pale, the picture is suitably sharp and film grain only shows up in small amounts on the brightest shots of the sky. This is how it’s supposed to be done.
Audio has also been restored with the Dolby Digital treatment, and purists will be happy it has been maintained in its original mono format. The sound is remarkably clear, free of extraneous noise, and does a great job with everything from dialogue to gunfights. Of course, you shouldn’t expect anything spectacular – it’s still a mono track originally produced in 1959, but fans will definitely be pleased.
Audio is English-only, but subtitles are available in English, French, Portuguese and Korean.
This Ultimate Collector’s Edition lives up to its name. Packaged with a full-colour 32-page reproduction of the 1959 Dell Rio Bravo comic book, a 16-Page reproduction of the film’s original Warner Bros. press book and eight full-colour lobby cards, this two-disc set features the following extras:
- Audio Commentary: by director John Carpenter (The Thing) and historian/critic Richard Schickel, this track is a treasure. The two men were recorded separately and edited together, but it flows well, and the combination of their perspectives offers a ton of interesting insight and analysis. Highly recommended.
- The Men Who Made The Movies: Howard Hawks: written and directed for TV back in 1977 by Schickel from the commentary track, this 55-minute documentary takes an in-depth look at the career of this prolific director. It features interview footage with Hawks, plenty of memorable clips from his films and interviews with filmmakers like John Carpenter and Peter Bogdanovich. It’s a great piece.
- Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo: this all-new featurette runs about 30 minutes, and covers pretty much every aspect of the film in varying detail. Rio Bravo is considered to be one of the three best westerns of all time, and this featurette treats it with much praise.
- Old Tucson: Where The Legends Walked: another all-new featurette, this one is shorter by about 20 minutes, and is all about the film’s shooting location in Old Tuscon. Apparently the location was used to shoot countless westerns over the years. Neat stuff.
- John Wayne Westerns Trailer Gallery: looking check out some other John Wayne classics? This gallery will whet your appetite. They sure don’t make trailers like this anymore.
Rio Bravo – Ultimate Collector’s Edition presents a great western in a superb package. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s time you became acquainted with Sheriff John T. Chance and his deputies, and unless you’ve adopted HD-DVD or Blu-ray, there’s no better way than this DVD set. This one’s a must-buy for fans of the film.
- DVD Talk’s Phil Bacharach heaps more praise on Rio Bravo, for the similar two-disc special edition.
- Cinematical.com compares Rio Bravo with 3:10 to Yuma, as two western revivals.