Our review of El Dorado: Centennial Collection, published May 14th, 2009, is also available.
On the road to El Dorado.
The archetypes are legendary in the form of cinema known as the American Western. The aging but still lightning quick gunhand. The once formidable lawman who has fallen on hard times. The young kid with a quick temper who is taken under the wing of the gunhand. The lady saloon owner with the heart of gold and a soft spot for said gunhand. The old coot deputy, steady and true with a comment for every occasion. The evil land owner who will do anything to extend his power. The how's and the why's of a film like this are always of secondary consideration to what is coming out of the mouths of it's characters. Know this and you have all you need to know about the world of John Wayne and director Howard Hawks.
If this brief plot summary sounds familiar it should. The tandem of Wayne and Hawks basically made the same movie three times. The first was released in 1959 was called Rio Bravo. El Dorado came around in 1967. Three years later, Rio Lobo rode off into the sunset.
Of the group, the first was the best and the third, the weakest. Which leaves El Dorado, the middle child.
I should say upfront that I have always had a weakness for the western. If it is the black and white world of John Wayne, John Ford and Howard Hawks or the murky gray area of Sam Peckinpah, if there are horses and gunfights, I'm there.
That being said, as I have gotten older I have come to realize that the western is to film what jazz is to music. A truly unique artform that is indigenous to America. The loner with his own personal code of honor who often walks the fine line of legality is a fixture that is around to this day in film. To say that John Wayne was the precursor to Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis is not that far of a stretch.
So what of El Dorado? Well, for one thing, the movie is a lot of fun. Hawks knew how to mix action with humor and to keep a movie chugging along. He is certainly helped by the screenplay from Leigh Brackett. It has quite a few zingers and plays to the strength of the cast.
Speaking of the cast. Understand one thing, Wayne is Wayne. Say what you will about his acting skills but that man filled up the movie screen. The weight of his personality alone is a driving force that quite a few action films can only wish they had access to. The man is honor and determination personified. To his credit he knew what his skills were and he played to them.
"The Duke" was always better when he had strong actors around him. In this case he had one of the best, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum has the role of drunken sheriff that Dean Martin played in Rio Bravo. While Martin added an easy going charm, Mitchum brought his own brand of quiet intensity to the table. The speed in which the sheriff detoxes may seem dated in today's jaded movie going eyes but there is no denying the pain and humiliation that Mitchum carries with his performance. It was skills such these that would grow with him as he got older. While golden age "stars" such as Wayne would either fade or retire. Mitchum and other actors like Burt Lancaster and William Holden would continue to challenge themselves and their skills, seeking to remain relevant performers.
The role of young upstart which was the weakest bit of casting in Rio Bravo gets a big upgrade with a very early showing from James Caan. Caan wisely chooses to forgo the Mississippi accent and focuses on his own strengths as an actor. As the world's worst "gunfighter" he hits just the right notes of cockiness and curiosity in a performance that helps keep the tone of the film light and breezy.
For El Dorado, Angie Dickinson was replaced by Charlene Holt. While Holt may not have possessed the raw sexuality of a young Dickinson, she is certainly pleasing to look at. That and she brings a more mature weight to the film that does not make the idea of a romance with her and "the Duke" as difficult to believe as Wayne and Dickinson.
For bad guys we have Ed Asner as the evil land baron who needs the neighboring ranch owner's water deeds so he can expand his power base. In the role of the other quick-handed gunfighter we get '60s and '70s television fixture, Christopher George. Asner is kind of bland and out of place in the film, while George has a great deal of fun with his role. He is the flip side of the Wayne part. As such, his character never sees himself as being evil, just as a professional. Whose job just happens to involve, well, killing people. If he has any weakness, it is just he is so damned curious about everything. It's that curiosity that, of course, proves to be his undoing.
Glory and praise should go to Paramount for starting to open the gates to some of their older catalog titles. They have done a fine job with El Dorado.
The film maintains it's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and gets a new anamorphic transfer to boot. Looking at this movie it is hard to believe it was shot some 30 plus years ago. The images are sharp and detailed. All of the exterior shots have a natural sheen to them; colors are rich and warm. Nighttime scenes are solid with great shadow delineation and there is almost zero bleed. Looking harder, there is precious little edge enhancement and the print is in very good shape with very little wear and tear. All in all, El Dorado looks fantastic.
If the disc has a weakness it is in the sound department. The track is Dolby Digital mono and it is pretty boring. There is almost no bass to speak of, so sound effects, like gunshots, come off as thin and unrealistic. Also, distortion is not really a problem except during the big shoot out, when the steeple bells are being fired upon. On the plus side however, there is very little hiss on the audio and dialogue comes through loud and clear. Considering the age of the recording I suppose all this is acceptable.
If you are looking for special features, well, this is a Paramount release. There is the film's theatrical trailer, which is interesting to watch once and realize how radically the marketing of movies has changed. Otherwise there is nothing else.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suppose I should be happy that Paramount has taken the time and care to put out such a nice, new transfer of a film that I loved as a child. It is only when I look at my disc collection and see what a studio like Columbia does with their own "classic" films that I feel a pang of disappointment. Maybe I have gotten spoiled but I feel that I and El Dorado, for that matter, deserved something more.
El Dorado is certainly a minor classic in the genre of the Hollywood western. It has probably never looked better and will probably never sound better either. I suppose that is something unto itself.
If you are a fan of these kinds of films or of John Wayne movies in general, by all means, pick this one up. If you have never seen it before and your local rental place has it, it is good for an evening's worth of entertainment in a classic Hollywood mode.
Paramount is thanked for taking the time to release classic films from it's vaults. That said, this court does request that either the studio start lowering it's asking price or start making them worth the money by including more features on it's discs.
I'm done here. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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