“Man gets shot that’s got a gun, there’s room for reasonable doubt. Man gets shot that hasn’t got a gun, what would you call it? But, you knew that already; otherwise you wouldn’t have set things up the way you did.”
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, straitlaced 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 dialog. 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 dialog 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 dialog, 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.
Rio Bravo is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 55 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. The print is pristine with nary a sign of artifacts or compression issues. There are some inconsistencies, and outside shots look much better than inside shots. Close-ups often look a bit messy, but honestly more like the print might have appeared in the box office days. When Dean Martin’s Dude first walks into the bar in the film’s opening, there are a few frames of pretty rough footage that are noticeable only because of the huge improvement we see just seconds later. The color palette is warm, and so oranges and reds really pop. A certain pair of lady’s bloomers really punches through here. Outside there aren’t many vistas, but once in a while you catch a distant mountain, and you get a feel of just how good Howard Hawks really was. The HDR is to thank for some of that vivid material as well as pretty solid black levels that give you good shadow definition in a few crucial night scenes. Textures benefit from the strong restoration. Leather particularly shines, as do other costume moments and the dirty streets of the town. Detail is sometimes too good. There’s a scene where Chance does a somersault through a barn door at night, and now for the first time the darkness doesn’t cover the use of the stunt performer, and it’s clearly not John Wayne. At times I think too much grain was scrubbed, but not often enough to form a reasonable complaint. The film looks better than it likely ever did.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track reproduces the filmmaker’s original intentions here. In some cases you might hope for a more expansive Atmos presentation, and I’m fine with that being an option. But this was a 1950’s film, and what you get here is still so much more than audiences heard at their local theatres. Dialog is what needs to be served here. For a Western this is a very “talky” film, and those are the character moments that bring the film to life. None of that requires a huge surround mix. The score is still grand when it needs to be, but mostly stays out of the way. It’s perfect for what it needs to achieve.
Rio Bravo was an unusual Western, particularly for its time. The casting of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson was a bit of a nice PR move. The two generations of singers play off each other nicely, and Martin gives a rather nice dramatic performance here. Of course, they have to do a couple of musical numbers, but those were cut from many of the older television versions, and it’s not done in a way that takes anything from what was a pretty serious and compelling film. The film manages to be a fine representative of its time (a must for box office results) but not find itself dated by an overindulgence of said PR requisites. In the end it’s the film’s fine balance that has allowed it to remain a classic today. “That’s my thinking, anyway.”
Parts of this review were written by Tom Buller