Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) is now available on 4K UHD Blu-ray as part of Warner Brothers-Discovery’s WB 100: Celebrating Every Story for $24.99. It should be less.
Starring John Wayne (The Searchers, El Dorado), Dean Martin (Ocean’s 11, Something’s Got to Give), Ricky Nelson (The Story of Three Loves, The Over the Hill Gang), Walter Brennan (The Bride of Frankenstein, Sergeant York) and Angie Dickinson (Dressed to Kill, The Killers) in her breakout role, Rio Bravo follows Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance with Martin and Brennan as his deputies. After arresting the villainous Joe Burdette (Claude Akins (From Here to Eternity, The Defiant Ones)), our heroes find their town blockaded and overrun by the hired guns of his brother Nathan, played by John Russell (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Pale Rider). Soon, Angie Dickinson’s mysterious “Feathers,” Nelson’s “Colorado,” and his boss Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond (It’s a Wonderful Life, Gone the Wind)) roll into town, unsuspecting of the devious standoff set to trap them there. Refusing the help of citizens who’d only get in the way, Sherriff Chance and his men turn the local jail into a fortress from which they prepare to weather the siege on their small town until the U.S. Marshall can arrive to cart away their powerful prisoner.
Adapted from a short story of the same name by B.H., McCampbell, Rio Bravo is a titanic entry in the canon of western films as a genre. In 2012, it held 63rd place on the Critic’s list for Sight & Sound, and 132nd on the Director’s poll, though the rebalancing of the 2022 list did see it fall entirely off the list.
“Sorry don’t get it done.”
The film is a definitive classic for Warner Brothers-Discovery, so it’s no wonder they’ve released it as part of their promised wave of 4k updates for the 100th year of Warner Brothers. What is a wonder is what’s going on over there, and why they’d release such a bare-bones offering to consumers with a product line supposedly meant to prop up the studios’ crumbling public image. Inside the box you will find a digital code for the film redeemable on Movies Anywhere, so at least that’s something. Beyond that, there is no 2k Blu-ray or HD DVD version of the film and on the included 4K UHD disc, you will find Rio Bravo, various language options, and a commentary by director John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) and film historian Richard Schickel (The Eastwood Factor, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin). No essays, no interviews, no archival footage or trailers, no short documentaries about the history of the film or its artists. Previously released on Blu-ray in 2007, the film once came with the same audio commentary, as well as Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” (2007), a 33-minute video with interviews from Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hrs.), Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show) and John Carpenter about Howard Hawks and the film. Old Tuscon: Where the Legends Walked (2007) was a tour of Rio Bravo’s Tuscon filming location, The Men Who Made the Movies (1973), a nearly hour-long documentary on the career of Howard Hawks featuring archival interviews with the director, and trailers for John Wayne films such as The Big Stampede (1932), Haunted Gold (1932), Somewhere in Sonora (1933), The Man from Monterey (1933), and Rio Bravo itself. All of these used to be extras that came with the film, that Warner Brothers-Discovery either owns or has licensed before. This author previously stated that the lack of extras on this disc was a mystery, but when what has been excluded from the disc is taken into account, the mystery is solved. As the newly minted “Max” streaming service is to the previous “HBOmax,” this is a worse product sold to the consumer as innovation, in the name of maximizing the profit margin on the product.
When David Zazlov became the CEO of Warner Brothers-Discovery, the merger resulted in a mega-corporation that needed to drastically unload as much of its $56.5 billion in debt as fast and ruthlessly as possible. From destroying completed films like Batgirl for a tax write-off to firing as many non-white executives as possible (if you believe that was financially motivated), and selling large portions of the company’s streaming licenses to rival services as a way to min/max their streaming profits. Now, the next step is reducing the amount of extras and overhead in physical media releases while charging the same price. Whether it’s licensing fees, physical production costs, residuals, or points on the back end, the message to consumers and to the striking WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions is clear: even physical media will be an example of “less for more” from the Hollywood studio.
But, what about the stuff they do give you? The 4k restoration on the disc is a joint effort between Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and Warner Bros. Post Production Creative Services: Motion Picture Imaging and Post Production Sound. Viewed on a Sony XBR-65X850D 4k TV and LG-UBK90 4k Blu-ray Player (Region Free), the Technicolor picture is stunning. Vibrant colors and appropriately crunchy blacks even in the washed-out desert sun, this is a great showcase of why even films from the 1930s can benefit from the UHD conversion process. As can happen with films whose negatives were taken out of the can for revival screenings or new pressings a little too often, there is occasionally a shot that seems more worn than the others, the digital restoration only going so far. On a 2.5 sound-bar surround setup, the mono mix was good, not great, but clearer and more dynamic than you’d get if Warner Bros-Discovery ever returns it to a streaming service like Max whose audio player was exchanged for a cheaper, less dynamic model when it dropped the “HBO.”
The audio commentary from Carpenter and Schickel is very good and of the academic vein. Carpenter’s inclusion still feels relevant, having placed four of his favorite director’s films on his recent Sight & Sound ballot. He was a voice crying out in the wilderness this time around, Hawks having fallen off the list completely. Schickel’s inclusion, in contrast, feels contextless given the new exclusion of The Men Who Made the Movies from this edition, which was of course directed by him. Highlights include a breakdown of Hawks’s code of masculinity and ideal of the professional, the film’s 1.85 aspect ratio, John Wayne’s acting style, and the film’s outdated humor around minor Latino characters (particularly that of Carlos, played by Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (The Love Bug, Chisum).
Language accessibility options include English, Spanish, and French audio, with English SDH, Spanish and Parisian French subtitles. The box art is passable, the front bearing a new photoshop of the three leading men in their billing order and the WB 100 banner. The back includes stills of the film, lists its single special feature, and a brief description of the film with a pull-quote by Geoff Andrew over at Time Out Film Guide, all above the typically over-stuffed WB Blu-ray back-of-box template of disclosures and warnings. The edition’s final crime is the menu, a bare-bones affair bearing the same photoshopped actors from the cover and a directory that laughably highlights the sparse offerings on the disc. No animation, a short snippet of the soundtrack, no clips from the film, no effort. The “resume” menu when returning to the film after powering down the player mid-film is, however, surprisingly nice.
Overall, this restoration is the definitive one, but as an edition with academic or instructive value, the previous Blu-ray release is $10 cheaper and vastly superior. If you love and already own Rio Bravo and want to upgrade to the best image quality, godspeed, but don’t toss out your older copy. It might be an endangered species.
Available 4K UHD and digital August 1st, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Warner Bros. Pictures Rio Bravo webpage.
Final Score Breakdown:
Film: 5 out of 5.
Restoration: 4 out of 5.
4K UHD Release: 2.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.