When director Howard Hawks returned to America in the late 1950s after spending several years in Europe, he teamed with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman to craft a new kind of Western, one more dependent on character and humor than epic action and widescreen vistas. The result was Rio Bravo, which tells the story of John Chance (John Wayne), a small-town sheriff whose station comes under siege when he arrests the brother of a wealthy land baron.
As hired killers arrive in town, Chance teams up with three unlikely partners: a recovering alcoholic (Dean Martin), a young marksman (Ricky Nelson), and an old man who can barely walk (Walter Brennan). The three men defend themselves and the station while Chance falls in love with Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a smart and sexy heroine. Hawks stretches this premise into almost 21⁄2 hours of screen time, but the movie’s construction is so elegant that it never feels slow or padded; the subplots are well balanced, and the many digressions (like the oft-criticized musical number that allows Nelson and Martin to sing onscreen) allow Hawks to examine some of his favorite themes with complexity and tenderness.
Rio Bravo is a deceptively simple film that expresses timeless ideas in the guise of an escapist adventure. Hawks couldn’t have chosen a better collaborator than cinematographer Russell Harlan, ASC, a master of the Western form whose credits included Hawks’ Red River and The Big Sky. Basing the look of Rio Bravo on the frontier paintings of Charles M. Russell, Harlan used expansive compositions not to favor the landscape, but to emphasize the democracy of Hawks’ worldview. Viewers are invited to identify with almost all of the characters at one point or another, and sometimes Harlan’s camerawork alters identification not only within the same scene but within the same shot. As a result, the film never feels static, despite the fact that its action is limited to relatively few locations. Harlan delivers the sweeping day exteriors Western fans have come to expect, but his most exquisite work is showcased in the night exteriors, as in an elegant sequence in which Wayne and Martin patrol the lantern-lit town.
It might have been easy to underrate Harlan’s work in earlier, substandard video releases of Rio Bravo, but the new anamorphic transfer featured on this two-disc DVD package preserves the tonal range of the lighting and color palette with virtually no picture flaws. The mono soundtrack is equally strong, and is particularly effective in the movie’s famous, dialogue-free opening scene. The supplements on disc one comprise an audio commentary by director John Carpenter and film critic Richard Schickel, both passionate and articulate Hawks fans, and a selection of trailers for other Wayne films.
Disc two features three documentaries, two of which are new. The first supplement is an updated version of Schickel’s 1973 segment about Hawks from the TV series “The Men Who Made the Movies.” The new 33-minute “Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo” is a superb featurette that contains interviews with Carpenter, Dickinson, Hawks enthusiasts Peter Bogdanovich and Walter Hill, and several film scholars and critics. Their insights, combined with audio recordings of an interview Bogdanovich conducted with Hawks for his book on the director, provide a concise but thorough production history and analysis of Rio Bravo. Finally, the 8.5-minute “Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked” is an enjoyable look at the Arizona studio where Rio Bravo and many other Western classics were shot. It completes this essential package for fans of the Western.