With its deft blend of action and comedy and its rapid-fire snappy dialogue, El Dorado (1966) is director Howard Hawks’ second to last retelling of the same story he had already nailed down in Rio Bravo (1959) and would attempt less successfully to mine for a third time as Rio Lobo (1970). Together, these three movies are considered something of a trilogy by most movie aficionados. Personally, I can’t help but see them as thinly disguised variations on a central theme; the righteous lawman forced to defend his sense of dignity and honor against seemingly insurmountable odds. While comparisons are noticeable, though unlikely to be made between the latter two films, both the first and second installments are transparently ‘first’ cousins of the kissing kind. You know what they say about the middle child. El Dorado isn’t quite as good as Rio Bravo, but it’s infinitely more entertaining than Rio Lobo. Not surprising, Hawks has utilized John Wayne in all three trips to the same well, thus making comparisons between the aforementioned even more distinct – if not, arguably, distinguished.
More than any other star of his generation, John Wayne had, by the late 1950’s, come to exemplify a certain archetype in the western mélange; the stoic loner, self-reliant and occasionally defiant, but always with a playful streak and the brute strength to back up any claim he cared to make. It’s Wayne’s iconography, rather than a performance, we get in El Dorado – the man vs. that mythology seemingly built-into his own DNA and very much anticipated by the audience. Even today, the name ‘John Wayne’ instantly conjures to mind an indelible image that has withstood the onslaught of changing times and tastes. Wayne is the undisputed power broker in El Dorado; his name above the title practically guaranteeing its box office.
Hawks, who at times had also been a fiduciary star maker in Hollywood, was actually coming off a pair of unmitigated flops – a rather uncharacteristic dry spell for a director with an unprecedented series of smash hits. Unruffled by this momentary unlucky streak, Hawks fell back on the western – a genre he had forsaken since 1948’s Red River – also starring Wayne, and one of the incomparable, all-time blockbusters of the western genre. El Dorado is not only the recipient of Hawks’ formidable backlog in showmanship and quality, his attention to every last nuance and detail, and his facility to blend the time-honored precepts of the vintage screwball and the Hollywood western; it’s also a template for the Hawk-ensian woman: two in El Dorado, actually: Michele Carey, as the sharp-shooting/more masculine, Josephine ‘Joey’ MacDonald, and, Charlene Holt as the shoot-from-the-hip/but decidedly more feminine saloon hostess, Maudie.
Only in retrospect, does Hawks great affinity for strong women become more apparent. In the 1930’s his favorites were Jean Arthur and Lauren Bacall (the latter with whom Hawks had planned a grand, though unrequited seduction that came to not after Bacall began her romance with Humphrey Bogart). The classic Howard Hawks’ woman is imbued with a clear-eyed strength of character; moral, devoted, proud and unwavering in her devotion to the hero. But she’s also her own person, not merely an appendage or something flashy for the man to wear on his arm. Arguably, she thinks like a man but behaves as propriety and her own sex dictates. Yet, she is never quite as helpless as she allows her male suitors to believe.
Make no mistake; El Dorado’s women are packing heat – literally; as Joey attempts to avenge the death of her younger brother, Luke (Johnny Crawford) by seriously wounding gunfighter, Cole Thornton (John Wayne) in the back. The bullet is perilously lodged near Cole’s spine and leaves him prone to bouts of crippling numbness and pain. It’s a rather fascinating plot point in Leigh Brackett’s screenplay: that what no man could ever do to John Wayne in the movies (nearly paralyze, if not entirely cut him down) this woman of such a tender age achieves almost by accident. It’s as though Hawks is cribbing from some congruency in his own flawed relationships with women, relying on the proverbial clichés - what a good woman can do, and consequently, what a bad woman will try to achieve her end…or, in this case, an end to our hero, and, in El Dorado’s rather refreshing paradigm, even before the main plot gets underway.
By the time he embarked on El Dorado, it could not have been lost on Howard Hawks that his time as both a filmmaker and a man were nearing their finish. Hawks would make only one other movie before his death in 1977, the aforementioned Rio Lobo; leaving behind a formidable back catalogue of accomplished ‘commercially successful’ masterworks that endure and delight audiences to this day. In retrospect, El Dorado is a minor masterpiece among them. For although it features Wayne, and that other he-man from Hollywood’s golden age – Robert Mitchum (in an uncharacteristically sympathetic role) the movie never quite matures beyond the shadow of its predecessor; Rio Bravo. The changes and/or updates made to this familiar retread are not significant enough to eclipse our fond appreciation for the first movie – more so since the advent of home video. This has allowed audiences to draw their own conclusions in side by side comparisons without the necessary passage of time to inevitably dull the memory.
Re-cast in the role that originally had gone to Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, is James Caan; looking fairly awkward as Alan Bourdillion Traherne (whom Wayne’s Cole affectionate nicknames ‘Mississippi’); a sort of twenty-something Doc Holliday with a Sunny Corleone complex already brewing beneath his ridiculous black hat. The hat, a supposed hand-me-down from his late adopted father, is cause for considerable amusement throughout the movie. Caan would, of course, later come into his own as an actor. But in El Dorado his comic relief sidekick is only occasionally amusing – if not entirely convincing, perhaps for no other reason, than Caan would later openly admit, although appreciative for the opportunity to work with the Duke, Hawks and Mitchum, he didn’t have a clue what he was doing in such distinguished company.
The toughest role to swallow in El Dorado is Mitchum’s Sheriff J.P. Harrah. An actor of considerable stealth and menace, Mitchum is herein reduced to playing the steely-eyed lawman who falls on liquored-up hard times and thereafter stumbles around to regain his equilibrium and dignity; made the figure of fun at times, but more often to bear lesser men’s jeers as they belittle this emasculated Samson until he falls into abject self-pity. “I’m looking’ at a tin star with a drunk pinned on it,” Cole tells Harrah after returning to El Dorado some eight months later. Leigh Brackett’s screenplay affords Mitchum no pithy retort, perhaps an attempt to stir up some audience sympathy for the character.
But this is Bob Mitchum we’re seeing, not Walter Brennen; not the guy who’s prone to falling apart at the seams, but rather the go-to guy when the world begins to crumble and fall. It’s a pity too, because Mitchum’s Harrah starts out as the anticipated tower of strength we’re expecting to see; holding Cole at rifle point while he makes him promise to turn down a gunslinger’s job from the thuggish Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Pulling himself out of a bottle is the hardest challenge Harrah’s had in sometime…and all because of some trick in shoe leather who done him wrong. How fickle and weak is man…or, at least, this man in particular? Mitchum’s fall from grace is convincing enough; his restoration by the end of the picture – less so.
Our story begins appropriately with a ballad composed by Nelson Riddle and a main title sequence projected against some stunning paintings to evoke the style of renowned western artist, Fredric Remington (actually painted by Olaf Wieghorst). We dissolve to our first glimpse of Mitchum’s Harrah – slender, self-assured, wearing his tin star with pride and carrying a rifle over one shoulder, making his inquiries around town about Cole Thornton and directed into a backroom of Maudie’s saloon where we discover Cole washing the dust from his face. The two regard one another with cordial sarcasm, Harrah casually instructing Thornton to keep away from his holster, loosely hung on the wall. Thornton isn’t about to engage Harrah in a shoot-out; first, because he regards him as a good man and a loyal friend, but also because he damn well knows he is evenly matched in marksmanship. Harrah tells Thornton he would be wise to turn down Bart Jason’s offer to join his motley crew of gunslingers-for-hire, engaged in a range war against the McDonald clan who live in the town of El Dorado. It doesn’t take much to convince Thornton. He isn’t intimidated. He just trusts Harrah’s word over Jason’s. The saloon’s mistress, Maudie, interrupts Thornton and Harrah’s tête-à-tête; all three discovering they have a lot more in common than they think. For it seems that Maudie was once Cole’s girl, then Harrah’s, though she’s never entirely forgot her first love.
After some glib repartee – no hard feelings, just a lot of water under these bridges - Cole rides to Jason’s ranch to inform him he is not taking the job. Jason’s a wily sort, disappointed by Cole’s decision, and menacing as his other gunmen eye Cole with abject contempt. Regrettably, misinformation has reached the McDonald ranch that Cole has accepted Jason’s offer. Knowing of Cole’s considerable reputation with a gun, and fearing he will now come a hunting for the family, patriarch, Kevin (R.G. Armstrong) sends his youngest boy, Luke ahead to scout for Cole. Unfortunately, the boy falls asleep at his post, awakening at the sound of horse’s hooves and, in a startled panic, firing a warning shot with his rifle into the air. Presuming the shot was meant for him, Cole fires a single round into Luke, then races up the embankment where he realizes the mistake he has made. The bullet is in Luke’s belly and it doesn’t look good. Cole attempts to comfort the boy, but Luke winds up taking his own life with a pistol after Cole has turned his back.
Returning to the McDonald’s ranch with Luke’s lifeless body, Cole attempts to explain what happened. Kevin believes his story but the McDonald’s only daughter, Joey, impulsively calls Cole out as a murderer. She stalks Cole and manages an unexpectedly expert shot, Cole falling from his horse, seemingly dead. But when Joey approaches to inspect her handy work, Cole grabs her by the ankle, toppling her into the mud and tossing her rifle into the nearby stream. Riding wounded back into town, Cole is informed by Dr. Miller (Paul Fix) that the bullet is lodged dangerously near his spine. It will cause him bouts of temporarily paralysis and excruciating pain. He cannot remove it, but urges Cole to seek out another professional opinion before it’s too late. After he has sufficiently healed, Cole departs El Dorado, leaving Maudie with minor heartbreak. Nevertheless, she is certain of his return.
Several months pass. Cole is entertaining a pair of Mexican prostitutes at his table inside a saloon when Alan Bourdillion ‘Mississippi’ Traherne enters the room, confronting Joe (Chuck Horne), one of the henchmen accompanying gunslinger-for-hire, Nelson McLeod (Christopher George). Seems Joe is responsible for the death of Mississippi’s adopted father. The mood grows pensive after Joe reluctantly accepts Mississippi’s challenge, believing he will win. Instead, Mississippi draws a hidden dagger from his back and flings it into Joe’s chest. McLeod’s other men - Milt (Robert Donner) and Pedro (John Gabriel) - are ready to exact their revenge. But Cole intervenes, befriending McLeod, enough for him to extend them both a ‘professional courtesy’, thereby sparing everyone the inevitable bloody gun battle that ought to have followed. Cole explains to Mississippi that he had better learn how to use a gun now that his reputation has been established. Mississippi elects to tail Cole – even after Cole has initially refused him. Eventually, he convinces Cole to become his mentor.
Cole also learns from McLeod that Harrah has since fallen on hard times and even harder liquor after an unhappy love affair. Cole elects to see for himself if this is true and returns to El Dorado with Mississippi. No one is gladder to see Cole than Maudie; the two rekindling their passion while Mississippi waits for Cole outside. Bu the next day Cole and Mississippi ride to the Deputy Sherriff, Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt) to see for themselves what has become of Harrah. Cole discovers the one-time lawman sleeping off his latest bender in a cell at the back of the jail. Stirred, but disoriented, Harrah attempts to start a fight and is quickly subdued by Cole. Thus, the sobering process begins. The situation becomes critical after McLeod and his men ride into town; new recruits of Bart Jason, and wasting no time going after the McDonald clan. Cole, Harrah, Bull and Mississippi pursue the shooters into an old church and finally corner them in Jason’s saloon. Sufficiently sobered, Harrah places Jason under arrest, a move that begins a blood feud. On a routine patrol of the town, Harrah is superficially wounded in the leg by McLeod and his men.
The next day, a note arrives from Maudie, suggesting McLeod’s men are terrorizing her patrons. In response, Cole and Mississippi come to her aid. They are ambushed by McLeod and his men. Cole suffers a particularly brutal attack from the bullet still lodged near his spine. Partially paralyzed, he is easily taken captive by McLeod, a trade eventually arranged with Bull – Jason for Cole. With nothing to stop them, Jason sends McLeod and his men to kidnap one of the McDonald’s boys in a blackmail attempt to get Kevin to sign over his water rights. Despite his failing health, Cole rallies the strength to launch a counteroffensive; Harrah bandaging up his leg and standing by his side. Cole, Harrah, Mississippi and Bull make a daring plan to rescue the captured McDonald; Cole distracting Jason and McLeod outside the front of the saloon while Harrah, Bull and Mississippi break in from the back alley. In a blaze of gunfire – and a little help from Joey – McLeod, his men and Jason are all killed. In the movie’s epilogue, Cole hints to Maudie that he might be ready to hang up his gun belt and settle down.
Based on Harry Brown’s novel The Stars in Their Courses, El Dorado is hardly Howard Hawk’s finest hour as a director. The film was a huge success with audiences in 1966 and has maintained its status over the years as a much beloved western. Even so, although undeniably compelling in spots, plus, exuding a palpable chemistry between its male leads (Robert Mitchum, John Wayne and James Caan) the script by Leigh Brackett is all over the place. Even Hawks acknowledge the movie’s meandering quality in later interviews, suggesting that El Dorado “wanders”. As a result, El Dorado is not so much a western driven by its narrative, but rather a series of vignettes derived from a back catalogue of western precepts casually blended together with varying degrees of success.
Minus the more flamboyant imagery of 1959’s Rio Bravo (Harold Rosson’s cinematography rarely lives up to the vibrant painted images evoked under the main title sequence), El Dorado is decidedly a less visually impressive experience. What saves the movie – apart from the obvious attraction of Wayne and Mitchum starring together – is Leigh Brackett’s razor sharp wit; Hawks managing to infuse elements of both the screwball and light romantic comedy, for which he is, undeniably, better renown. Still, El Dorado tends to be just a little too convenient in its third act; its’ contrivances largely predictable. Consider that after six months of binge drinking to blot out the details of a botched love affair, Harrah suddenly goes on the wagon and returns to the side of right – thanks to a few sobering thoughts provided by the Duke and some comical side-play between the three principles and their gal pal, Maudie. It’s never been easier to become a drunk and then a recovering alcoholic. Twelve step program, my foot! In the final analysis, El Dorado is an enjoyable movie – but it pales in comparison to Hawks’ other efforts.
Paramount hi-def release, via Warner Home Video’s distribution deal, is adequate, though not exquisite. It appears the same digital files used to master the old 2-disc Centennial Collector’s DVD have been incorporated for this Blu-ray release. Similarities abound, beginning with El Dorado’s palette of color. Exteriors shot in Old Tuscon and Utah look fairly vibrant – interior scenes (shot on obvious sets) less so. Flesh tones continue to lean toward ruddy orange. Clarity, sharpness and detail all take the obvious next step up from their standard-def predecessor. Contrast is generally solid, although black levels seem to suffer during a few key scenes shot at night. Also, DNR has been applied. No, we’re not talking about those hideous waxen images that have become all too familiar in hi-def. There’s no evident loss of fine detail and/or obvious boosting. Still, El Dorado appears less film-like than expected.
Despite the back jacket claim of a new 5.1 audio mix, the lossless DTS herein is still 2.0 mono! The dynamic range is sold with very clear dialogue and a good blending of SFX. Extras include two separate audio commentaries; the first, fairly comprehensive from Peter Bogdanovich; the second by Richard Schickel and featuring Ed Asner and Todd McCarthy. Paramount has imported their 7-part documentary from the aforementioned DVD. This is a fantastic extra fans will surely appreciate; ditto for the vintage 1967 featurette that shows Hawks hard at work on the film, plus a brief retrospective on John Wayne with insights from A.C. Lyles. Bottom line: if you love this movie then the Blu-ray is definitely the way to appreciate it. This disc isn’t perfect, but it offers a very competent hi-def presentation.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)