Paramount // 1966 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // May 14th, 2009
Cole: "I just hope you're good enough."
JP: "So do I. So do I."
Howard Hawks was responsible for "a great film in almost every genre," according to author Todd McCarthy. While I will always think of Hawks as the screwball comedy director behind His Girl Friday, he's also a master of the Western. When Hawks headed back to the West for El Dorado, he'd had two fizzles (including Red Line 7000, from which he brought along young actor James Caan). This time, he had ammunition for a hit in John Wayne (who'd starred in Hawks' Hatari! and Rio Bravo) and Robert Mitchum. The story is an adaptation of The Stars in their Courses by Harry Brown, although a lot of people call El Dorado a remake of Rio Bravo.
Hired gun Cole Thornton (John Wayne, True Grit) arrives in the Texas town of El Dorado to help rancher Bart Jason (Edward Asner, Lou Grant), but his old friend, Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear), advises against it. Jason, it turns out, is trying to chase rival Kevin McDonald off his land to get the water supply.
Cole turns down the job, but the news comes a little too late for McDonald. His son, on lookout for Cole, fires his gun and is "gut shot" by the gunslinger. The young man shoots himself, believing the wound will be fatal. It could also be too late for Cole, since McDonald's daughter Joey (Michele Carey, Dirty Dingus Magee) shoots Cole in anger, and a bullet that can't be removed is causing temporary bouts of paralysis that keep getting worse.
Cole returns to El Dorado when he hears that Nelse McLeod (Christopher George, Midway) has taken the job he refused. He's bringing a friend, gambler Mississippi (James Caan, The Godfather), but the green youth can't shoot worth a darn. Worse, Cole finds J.P. has become a drunk.
Can Cole sober up his friend in time to save the day?
From the opening scenes which find the sheriff heading into the saloon washroom to meet his old friend, there's a great rapport between John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, supported by the fast Howard Hawks quips that are fired more often than bullets. Their rapport -- augmented later on by Arthur Hunnicutt and James Caan -- makes El Dorado easy to watch. It also makes the movie feel shallow at first, but that feeling goes away as the movie continues.
What makes that shallow feeling go away, besides two great leads, is a theme of dealing with fallibility, what Todd McCarthy calls an "intimation of mortality" in a featurette. Wayne's Cole is one of the best gunslingers around, but he knows that his temporary paralysis could set in at the wrong time. Mitchum's J.P. is having a crisis of confidence -- Bart Jason made a joke of him in the saloon -- as he sobers up and prepares for a potentially deadly battle. Caan's Mississippi comes across as brash when we first meet him, but quickly realizes he'd have fallen into a trap if not for Cole. He's smart but he knows he's got a lot to learn. There's humor in their weaknesses, but the men aren't jokes. They fight even though they're aware of their weak spots and know that their liabilities could be fatal. Small details show their awareness and the teamwork that helps them overcome those weak spots. Early on, Cole loads a gun for the still-shaky J.P., and J.P. returns the favor as Cole's paralysis kicks in before the final showdown.
John Wayne may not cry, but he lets emotion creep through in his performance. When Kevin McDonald (R.G. Armstrong, The Ballad of Cable Hogue) says, "I'm much obliged to you for that," as Cole brings back the body of his son Luke, Wayne's brief answer, "It don't help much," makes it clear he's hurting. He can defuse a situation with a few well-chosen words, showing how well chosen with his slow, pausing speech. Wayne's veteran gunslinger isn't just fast on the draw; he's smart and alert, traits shown as Cole takes Mississippi under his wing. Even as he's looking around every corner, though, Wayne comes across as easygoing rather than paranoid and edgy. It's just part of the gunslinger's job, after all.
Robert Mitchum has the most fun with this one, playing his sheriff as straightlaced at the start, a complete wreck when Wayne meets him again, and a drinker fighting to reclaim his sobriety most of the way through. He reaches comically for a gun that's not there in a drunken stupor in one scene, but makes you root for him in the next with his fatalistic pursuit of what's right. When J.P. says he's "too mad to be scared and just too sick to worry about it," Mitchum makes the line sink in. He steals the show from John Wayne, and that's not an easy task. James Caan plays the romantic lead, charming the feisty Michele Carey as Joey, the "wild mustang" who ends up joining their fight. Caan also gets most of the running gags, as everyone makes fun of his hat, and J.P. keeps forgetting who this guy is. Christopher George manages to be almost likable as hired gun Nelse McLeod, while Ed Asner brings a sliminess to the role of Bart Jason.
El Dorado came out in 1967, so you know it's going to be colorful, both in the sets and the outdoor vistas and sunsets. In the featurettes, it's compared to "a Remington painting." That color palette looks impressive on DVD. The music and fast talk are well-handled, too. A gunfight scene with bullets hitting church bells is just loud enough to make the point, but not loud enough to make your ears bleed at home.
Two commentary tracks are included. Peter Bogdanovich delivers a soft-spoken account of his experiences on the set, learning from Hawks and Wayne, with tidbits about the movie. He also points out quite a few classic Hawks touches. Similar ground is covered on a commentary that features film experts Richard Schickel and Todd McCarthy and actor Ed Asner. Although there are three voices, they don't seem to be conversing; it feels like the comments were recorded at different times. You'll learn that El Dorado was released in 1966 in Japan, a main character was killed in the novel, and a brief glimpse of female nudity was cut. The thoughts presented here are good, but the assembled feel means Bogdanovich's low-key commentary works better.
Disc Two features the seven-part "Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado," with just over 40 minutes of background discussion, including some audio of an interview with director Howard Hawks. Topics include Hawks' work with Wayne, similarities to Rio Bravo, Caan's learning on the set, and the critics' debate over the movie. The most interesting tidbit is that Wayne fidgeted on the set between takes. Also on Disc Two, "The Artist and the American West," a short from 1967, features Olaf Wieghorst, the artist whose paintings are featured in the opening credits. The artist, a friend of Wayne's, also got a cameo. There's not too much detail on Wieghorst, but it shows a more relaxed Wayne hanging out. "Behind the Gates: A.C. Lyles Remembers John Wayne" offers nothing new for old-timers, but the retrospective of his Paramount career is a good introduction for Western greenhorns. The theatrical trailer pegs El Dorado accurately as a character piece rather than a big action picture. Galleries feature lobby cards and three collections of production pictures, including a few of Wayne and Caan playing chess on the set. Even a good trailer? That's impressive.
El Dorado has fun with the conventions of the Western, but in the end, it really is a Western. If you have any doubts that John Wayne and Robert Mitchum will save the day, you're greener than Mississippi.
El Dorado is fun, but two veteran stars who work well together and a theme of overcoming weaknesses makes it memorable. Western and John Wayne fans should see it, if they haven't already, and will want to own it.
Not a Western fan? Consider that John Wayne's old-fashioned Western hero was still playing to big audiences in 1967 when El Dorado was released. Wayne must have some fans, drawn by his strong personality, who wouldn't watch anyone else's Westerns. In his commentary, Peter Bogdanovich tells viewers they'll want to see more Howard Hawks-John Wayne collaborations. I reckon he could be right.
Not guilty. John Wayne and Robert Mitchum are certainly in their courses.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated