Rio Bravo Blu-ray Review: A Western Classic Restored

In 1952, director Fred Zinnemann made High Noon with Gary Cooper, who plays a small-town marshal whose being threatened by a man he once put away and his gang of thugs.  Throughout the film, Cooper tries to find others to help him fight the gang, but one by one everyone either refuses or leaves town.  In the end, it is only the marshal’s wife who brings forth any assistance.

Howard Hawks and John Wayne, tough guys that they were, thought this plot was phony.  No man worth his salt would go around asking for help in such a situation.  And they sure wouldn’t accept no help from a woman.  No way.  No how.  So in response they made Rio Bravo in 1959 (and then El Dorado which is pretty much the same movie in 1967).  In it. Wayne plays John T. Chance, the small-town sheriff who put the brother of a rich and powerful rancher in jail.  The brother aims to take him back by any means necessary (and with the help of a large and motley gang).

Chance is joined by a gimpy old codger (Walter Brennan) and the town drunk (Dean Martin), but refuses help from various folks who come to offer it.  He says this is because those willing to help aren’t trained to fight and they’d only get themselves in the way and probably killed, but really it’s because he’s a man and real men don’t need no help.  He does wind up asking a young gunslinger (Ricky Nelson) for help but that’s mostly because he’s the only one not offering it (and if movies have taught us anything about real men is that they always want those who don’t want them back).

Looking at High Noon and Rio Bravo, you’d think we’d have to choose between one or the other since they are philosophically opposed, but that’s the great thing about movies – you don’t have to choose.  I really like them both, opposing philosophies be damned.  If pressed I’d probably give higher marks to High Noon with its deeper moral insight and its allegory towards the Hollywood blacklist, but Rio Bravo is a darn fine film on its own.

John Wayne plays the role like John Wayne always does, but he does that particularly well here.  By this point in his career, he doesn’t have to prove a darn thing and we see that in his character.  Chance doesn’t say all that much but his presence is felt in every shot.  Wayne had such a history with characters like this that we feel the history fill up the story.

Martin is terrific, too, as the sad sack drunk trying to turn his life back around.  The glittery sheen of his Rat Pack life is completely forgotten – dirtied up with mud, crud, and grit.  Walter Brennan is around for comic relief but he never overreaches, and while Ricky Nelson feels a little out of place in his slicked-up pompadour, he manages to hold his own by film’s end.

Hawks famously shot the film with only four close-ups preferring long and medium shots to do the heavy lifting and this allows us to see what’s going on all around the characters, what’s lurking in the shadows.  In the first five minutes or so, not a word of dialogue is spoken and yet nearly the entire film is set up with the expert craftsman’s hands.  It’s a slow build kind of film with lots of long scenes building character and tension.  Only a guy like Hawks operating at a time before CGI and YouTube-style attention spans could pull it off, but man is this thing a joy to watch. 

But you know that already.  Everybody does.  This is a classic after all.  So let’s get to whether you should buy the upgrade. 

The Blu-ray comes with  a 1080p, 1.78:1- framed transfer and it looks pretty good.  It’s not a perfect transfer by any means and you certainly won’t be using this to show off your new system, but it works.  There is noticeable grain throughout, but the colors look good, especially the blacks.  Details also show up nicely.  It’s a dark picture, with many scenes happening at night or in dim rooms and the grain really shows up there, but overall, especially considering the age of the film, it looks very nice.  The audio does its job well, but not too well.  It’s not a flashy picture in terms of audio presentation but the dialog is easily understood and in the final gunfight the various shots and explosions show a nice bit of power.

Extras include an audio commentary from director John Carpenter and critic Richard Schickel.  It’s a bit on the technical and dry side but very informative and filled with lots of historical information that will be satisfying to any student of film.  It’s also been available for awhile as I have the same commentary on the DVD version of the film.  New extras include a 33-minute feature on the film with various filmmakers like Walter Hill, John Carpenter, and Peter Bogdanovich discussing the movie.  There’s another eight-minute feature on Old Tucson studios where Rio Bravo was shot.  Also included is a 55-minute documentary from 1973 on Howard Hawks, and a bunch of old John Wayne movie trailers.

Rio Bravo is a fantastic film.  It’s one of the greatest westerns ever made and deserves a spot on any movie lover’s shelf.  While the HD transfer is not perfect, it’s definitely an improvement over the previous DVD versions.  And with some great old extras and a few new ones, I’d say this Blu-ray version is well worth your time and money.

Rio Bravo is part of the John Wayne Westerns Film Collection, along with Fort Apache, The Searchers, and two movies new to Blu-ray, The Train Robbers and Cahill: U.S. Marshal.

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Mat Brewster

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