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Warner celebrates one of its best – “Rio Bravo” – on 4K

Updated: Aug 26, 2023


John Wayne plays Presidio County Sheriff John T. Chance in West Texas. He and his two deputies and young gun Colorado (Ricky Nelson) are trying to fend off a band of killers hired by the wealthy Nathan Burnette, who wants to spring his brother out of jail for murder.

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4K Ultra HD & Digital copy; 1959; unrated

Best extra: The informative and enlightening commentary with director John Carpenter and the late film critic/producer Richard Schickel

NEARLY 4,600 Westerns have galloped across the silver screens since the beginning of the 20th century. During the summer of 2010, Wild West Magazine listed its 100 Greatest Westerns in a glossy 100-page special edition. John Ford and Howard Hawks were the only directors that had two classics each selected in the Top 10. It’s no surprise those four films starred former USC football player Marion Robert Morrison, also known as John ‘Duke’ Wayne.

At No. 3 – Ford’s poetic drama of American political conflict “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). No. 5 – Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” filmed in Old Tucson, in which Wayne wore the same battered hat he sported in Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), the film that made him a star. No. 7 – Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), a sweeping and distressing tale of racism, revenge, and obsession, filmed within the red mesas of Monument Valley. And, No. 10 – Hawks’ post-Civil War cattle drive epic “Red River” (1948).

Film critic Gene Seymour writes in his Wild West review of “Rio Bravo” that Hawks made the western as a “gimlet-eyed, sly-booted rebuke” to Fred Zimmerman’s classic “High Noon” (1952). Interestingly enough, Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar as Marshal Will Kane, with newcomer Grace Kelly playing his Quaker bride when Wild West selected the black and white film No. 1 among their Top 100. Seymour also says, Wayne hated ‘High Noon’s’ “allegorical sendup of people who failed to stand up against Joe McCarthy and House Un-American Affairs Committee witch hunt,” and probably also resented the film’s “sly undercutting of his characteristic Western role: the tough, tight-lipped do-it loner who doesn’t look for help when the bad guys show up.”

(1) Dean Martin plays Dude, the boozer deputy fighting his inner alcoholic demons. (2&3) Joe Burnette (Claude Akins) temps Dude with a glass of whisky and then kills an unarmed man in the saloon. (4) Sheriff Chance arrests Burnette.

In the spring of 1958, a decade after “Red River,” Hawks reteamed with Wayne and assembled his “Rio Bravo” production company with a crew of 91 on the original Columbia Pictures Old Tucson movie studio set in Pima County, just outside of Tucson, Arizona, and Saguaro National Park West. This was Hawks’ first American film in four years, after a stint in Europe escaping his box office failure “Land of the Pharaohs” (1955), also released by Warner Brothers.

The late film critic Roger Ebert selected “Rio Bravo” as a “Great Movie” in his book of the same name. Hawks was 62 years old, working his 41st film. “He was so nervous on the first day of shooting, he stood behind a set and vomited. Then he walked out and directed a masterpiece,” Ebert says. “To watch ‘Rio Bravo’ is to see a master craftsman at work. The film is seamless.”

The story is based on B.H. McCampbell’s short story, adapted into a 141-minute western by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, the team who also wrote Hawks’ noir classic “The Big Sleep” (1946). Director Quentin Tarantino considers “Bravo” one of his all-time favorites and has watched it so many times he’s lost count. He believes the conversational “hang out” scenes between characters are a key element of “Bravo’s” script. Tarantino often applied the “hang out” technic in his own scripts: “Pulp Fiction” (1994); “Jackie Brown” (1997), and especially his western “The Hateful Eight” (2015) starring Samuel L Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, and Walton Goggins.

Wayne plays Presidio County Sheriff John T. Chance of West Texas, holding murderer Joe Burnette played by newcomer Claude Akins (“Comanche Station”) in the small adobe jailhouse until the U.S. Marshal arrives in five to seven days. Joe’s wealthy brother Nathan (John Russell) is willing to give anyone a $50 gold piece to free Joe from jail leading every gunslinger in the territory to take a shot at taking out the sheriff and his tattered trio of deputies. Dean Martin plays Dude, the boozer fighting his inner alcoholic demons. Three-time Oscar-winning character actor Walter Brennan (“The Westerner,” “The Real McCoys,” TV) provides a comic touch as toothless, peg-legged Stumpy.

(1) Pat Wheeler’s (Ward Bond) caravan arrives in Rio Bravo with a shipment of dynamite. (2) Dude holds the caravan to make way for the funeral parade for the man killed by Joe Burnette. (3) The 4K clarity is excellent, extracting the fine detail on Wayne's right hand and left, keeping the pattern shirt worn by Bond without a moiré pattern. Chance and Wheeler chat about the Burnette brothers. (4) Colorado has been one of Wheeler’s best gunhands.

Then-teen idol Ricky Nelson is cast as the third deputy halfway in as young gun Colorado, once a rider with Pat Wheeler’s (Ward Bond) caravan carrying a shipment of dynamite. A good friend of John T., Wheeler signs on to help but is killed by one of Burnette’s men. Nelson and Martin provide some musical entertainment singing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” while barricaded inside the jailhouse. Nelson also picks up a guitar out of nowhere to sing “Cindy” with Martin and Brennan as backups.

Twenty-six-year-old Angie Dickinson in her first major role as gambler Feathers, provides the romantic sparks with 51-year-old Wayne. Strangely it all works, with her deep and sassy voice much like Lauren Bacall opposite Humphrey Bogart in Hawks’ “To Have and Have Not” (1944) and “The Big Sleep.” She asks John T. for a second kiss because “It’s even better when two people do it.”


The 4K disc only includes the commentary with director John Carpenter (“The Thing,” “Halloween”), who says Hawks is his favorite director. Carpenter based his “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976) on “Rio Bravo.” Weaving throughout the conversation is the late producer/former Time Magazine critic Richard Schickel, who also considers “Bravo” Hawks’ last great film.

MIA from this set is the excellent 33-minute “Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo” featured on previous DVDs and Blu-ray. I suggest you keep your old Blu-ray just for this extra.

It features interviews with directors Walter Hill and John Carpenter, co-star Angie Dickinson, UCLA Department of Film and Television film historian Jonathan Kuntz, James D’Arc curator of the Hawks papers at BYU, and director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich who provides several audio clips from his 1960s interview with Hawks. We learned how studio tycoon Jack Warner tried to convince Hawks to not make the Western, but changed his mind once Wayne signed on. Plus, there’s the story of Martin’s 9:30 a.m. interview with Hawks after playing a midnight show in Vegas, and hiring a private plane to get to L.A. in time.

“Howard Hawks was the coolest man I ever met. He was the epitome of cool and looked like a director.” – Peter Bogdanovich

(1&2) Stumpy (Walter Brennan) keeps a watchful eye on Joe Burnette, while the prisoner gives some lip to Dude. (3) Hotel owners Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and Consuelo Robanto (Estelita Rodriguez). (4) Gambler Feathers (Angie Dickinson) arrives in town and wastes no time getting into a game of poker with Colorado and others. (5&6) Chance tries to convince Wheeler to join his small band of deputies until the U.S. Marshal arrives.

Another missing documentary is the 55-minute “The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks” by Richard Schickel highlighting Hawks’ half-century career. A rarity in Hollywood, his 33 sound motion pictures were all made without being under contract with a studio. It opens with the tall, thin, retired director wearing a cowboy hat, watching his teenage son in a motorcycle race in the California desert.

The only extra carried over is the eight-minute featurette “Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked” only available on iTunes (Apple TV) and Movies Anywhere via the digital code. It quickly highlights the 40-acre studio built in a desert valley with giant saguaro cacti near Tucson, and features a train station, hotel, saloon, school, blacksmith shop, and corral used to recreate the Old West.


The original open matte 35mm camera negative (matted here in the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio) and second-generation elements to fill gaps where needed were scanned in 4K for this striking Ultra HD presentation. A good dose of natural film grain is most evident during the very bright daylight scenes, while the studio-lit interiors were filmed on a very fine grain film stock. Overall, the 4K clarity is very good from the wide-angle landscapes to the many tight facial shots, with the only shortcoming during the short composite fade edits. Hawks and his cinematographer Russell Harlen (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) kept their Mitchell BNC camera mostly at eye level. “He always kept the characters out front,” says Carpenter during the commentary.

The expanded color spectrum of the HDR10 grading (4K disc) and Dolby Vision (Digital), gives the earth-colored palette of browns, blues and red a saturated look throughout. The interior saloon scenes are very warm, to mimic the candles and oil-based lanterns. Meanwhile, the sunbaked exteriors are much brighter, especially along the dusty streets compared to the older 1080p disc. Peak brightness level hits 3163 nits and averages 193 nits, while the video bitrate fluctuates between the low 30s Megabits per second to the mid 70 Mbps, and averages around 56 Mbps.


No issues with the restored, uncompressed 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master soundtrack, which keeps the dialogue front and center along with the powerful gun blasts and the music cues from Dimitri Tiomkin (“High Noon”), who also composed the trumpet theme “De Guella.”

As Warner continues to celebrate its 100th Anniversary, “Rio Bravo” is clearly a great addition to this year’s lineup of classics. I’m hoping to see “The Searchers” – especially since Ford captured the western on the large format VistaVision cameras.

Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1) Sheriff Chance, Dude, and Colorado “Hang Out” in front of the jail as the “De Guella” Mexican tune continues to play. (2) Nathan Burnette (John Russell) visits his brother Joe. (3&4) Another band of Burnette killers is stopped by the Sheriff and Colorado. (5) Dude decides to stop drinking. (6) Another hired killer searches for the Sheriff. (7) Stumpy is ready for any action.


Final Showdown


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