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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Comedy > Drama > Politics > Rio Bravo (1959) + The Cowboys (1971) HD-DVDs

Rio Bravo (1959) + The Cowboys (1971) HD-DVDs


Picture: B     Sound: C+/B-     Extras: B-/C+     Films: B/C+



Continuing their releases of John Wayne in the High Definition formats, Warner Bros. is following up their remarkable upgrade of The Searchers (1956, reviewed on HD-DVD elsewhere on this site) with two more of his Westerns.  This time out, we get Howard Hawks’ reactionary, much discussed and major box office hit Rio Bravo and Mark Rydell’s also-controversial The Cowboys.  Both are key Wayne films, though Bravo has an ever-persistent reputation about it to this day and is still influential on the action genre, particularly since the 1980s.


After John Ford, Wayne and Hawks are two of the most important figures in the rise and fall of the Western genre, though Hawks only made so many of them.  As the genre started to change in the early 1950s, it still remained popular, but a split began to occur.  Besides Johnny Guitar and Broken Arrow with James Stewart, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1950) was a watershed film in the genre.  The story of the Sheriff (Gary Cooper) going around town to see if anyone in the community will help him as he stands alone against the vengeful team of the brother of an important captive he holds in jail.


The film was bold enough to say that a community that is complicit with violence and inaction is partly responsible with the collapse and disintegration of that community.  Whether it is out of fear, complacency, ignorance or carelessness, you cannot have a thriving town without people wanting that and the film was instead bashed as “Left wing” or “communist” by those who were worse than the townspeople in the film.


In Hawks case, he came up with the absurd criticism that Cooper’s character was not “professional” (whatever that means when the whole town is imploding) and was “whiny” when going around asking just anyone for help.  That would be a much harder argument to make with Sean Connery in Peter Hyams’ 1981 Sci-Fi actioner Outland (which should have been issued at the same time as these discs in HD) partly proving Hawks wrong.  His idea of professional is to maybe get the help of two men at the end of their lives (Lon Chaney, Jr., Walter Brennan, Ward Bond), rehabilitate a drunk (Dean Martin) and get a younger man (Ricky Nelson) to get masculine quick as Wayne’ Sheriff Chance (I guess he is taking a “chance” Copper was not?) to get a team together.


The Jules Furthman/Leigh Brackett screenplay even has Chance rejecting people’s help to show how tough and stubborn he is.  Add the humor that became a formula for offsetting and inoculating the audience from reality in 1980s action films, was reworked twice later by Hawks himself (El Dorado, Rio Lobo) and the film suddenly seems like a victim of the events of 9/11!


However, the point was to reconstruct the genre, which helped it for about 20 more years before the inevitable decline occurred in the face of changing times and key Westerns that changes everything (like The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns and Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (also on HD-DVD on this site) among others) and it worked.  It played the star system politics very well in its casting and that has kept it popular for almost half-a-century and counting.


The one argument that is possible that keeps both High Noon and Rio Bravo in tact as not contradictory and “realistic” is to consider that the town in Bravo is more developed than that of Noon, which could inadvertently support Bravo more than this critic might like to.  However, it could also be argued that all the extras items on top of the Western Hawks adds to his film negate some of it as a Western (especially the above average use of comedy, also as inoculator) versus the more adult, mature approach of High Noon.  Then there is the adverse that Zinnemann was dead on to begin with.


Well, the action sequences are good, even when some of the moments are more melodramatic than they should be.  Hawks was a key director of other genres (Gangster with the original Scarface, Mystery with To Have & Have Not and The Big Sleep which happen to be Film Noirs, War with Dawn Patrol and Sergeant York, comedy with Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby) so even though he did the superior classic Western Red River in 1948, his arrival to the genre was much later.  It could be argued that Red River could much more easily go a few rounds with High Noon than Rio Bravo.


However, Rio Bravo moves along not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (also 1959) as a sort of Western, Hawks film and Wayne Western to end them all, though it only spelled the end of one era and the beginning of another.  It can also be seen as a retreat in a way from some of John Ford’s most valid points in The Searchers, all jokes aside of course.


Still hanging in there, Wayne was still trying to find new approaches to the Western and with the counterculture having arrived, he and director Mark Rydell (The Reivers, On Golden Pond) brought on the next generation pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in The Cowboys, where Wayne as a cattle rancher short on help.  This time, he is more desperate than in Rio Bravo and turns to eleven children to be his posse to heard his heard.


The film has its moments and is often bold, with Bruce Dern in the thankless role of villain Asa Watts and a strong supporting cast that includes Roscoe Lee Brown, Colleen Dewhurst and Robert Carradine.  Though not the strongest film of any of the participants, it is amusing, ambitious and definitely made for the big screen.  Wayne also gives one of the better performances of his career.


Both films were issued in three-strip dye-transfer Technicolor prints at the time and though both HD-DVDs have solid color moments that remind us of this, the 1080p image quality on both have issues, limits and the source material could use some more work.  Russell Harlan shot the 1.85 X 1 image on Rio Bravo and it is a smart, efficient shoot, mindful of narrative space in its visual space, like how confined areas bring the men together however unwittingly.  Veteran cinematography Robert Surtees (Oklahoma!, Ben-Hur, The Last Picture Show) shot The Cowboys in real anamorphic Panavision with the intent to do 70mm blow-up prints.  As a result, there is some consistently excellent composition throughout that often shines on this HD-DVD version.


The Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 on Rio Bravo is about as good as it is going to get, with a good score by Dimitri Tiomkin, though one wonders if the original masters of the music exist.  If they are 3-track mono, a stereo version of this soundtrack would be possible.  70mm blow-up prints of The Cowboys originally offered 6-track magnetic stereo, which is part of the source of the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix here.  However, since five of those tracks were behind the screen, you get traveling dialogue and sound effects more often that surrounds.  John Williams did the sometimes playful score, though it turns serious when the stakes climb.


Extras are numerous on both releases, fortunately.  Rio Bravo includes Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo & Old Tucson: Where Legends Walked and The Men Who Made Movies: Howard Hawks featurettes, a Wayne trailer gallery, career profile text and feature length audio commentary by film writer Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter, who is heavily influenced by Hawks.  The Cowboys offers feature length audio commentary by Rydell, The Cowboys: Together Again featurette, The Breaking Of Boys & The Making Of Men vintage featurette and the original theatrical trailer.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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