(1959) + The Cowboys (1971) HD-DVDs
B Sound: C+/B- Extras: B-/C+ Films: B/C+
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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