El Dorado – Centennial Collection Review

The middle film in the Howard Hawks-John Wayne trilogy of color westerns with similar plots, El Dorado gets a number in Paramount’s Centennial Collection and a sizing up by clydefro.

There’s little use in arguing against the idea of Howard Hawks’ 1966 western El Dorado as being essentially a remake of his earlier Rio Bravo. The basic similarities are there. Rio Bravo has John Wayne, his friend the drunkard who must sober up long enough to help keep order in the town against some encroaching outlaws, a young greenhorn, a crusty old-timer, and a pretty lady with a hankering for Wayne’s character. El Dorado shares all those things albeit with different faces. But they aren’t the same movie or exact story. More like variations. Rio Bravo is superior, though the later film also has its moments. We can compare and contrast the details, debate over which elements shine brighter in each, and still be left with the givens there from the start. Rio Bravo has the advantage of coming first and being made at a time when films like it belonged amid the greater mainstream output in Hollywood. By 1967 when El Dorado was released, it was completely of a different era. The subtleties Hawks constructed the movie with are buried deep inside an entertaining but outdated yarn. Where Rio Bravo could get by with an almost delicate scene of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson musically enhancing an otherwise fairly serious picture, El Dorado immediately feels antiquated when its theme song is crooned over the opening credits.

A multitude of television airings and several decades later, the year of a film’s release may tend to fade away with little obvious importance, but it’s still a tough label to fully escape. El Dorado debuted in American cinemas over half a year later than Richard Brooks’ supremely exciting western The Professionals, a title Hawks must have loved and a movie that actually embraces the whims of the era it was made without being a slave to them. The Hawks film simply doesn’t care and exists more on its own terms than anything imposed on it from the outside. It’s an obstinate, old man’s movie that makes the weary viewer opine how they don’t make ’em like that anymore. There are certainly hints of the ticking clock, notably the effects of the bullet lodged in the Wayne character’s side. His Cole Thornton begins as one of the fastest shots around but has to carry on through pain and paralysis in the climactic final shoot-out. Likewise, Robert Mitchum’s alcohol-impaired sheriff J.P. Harrah struggles with vitality. His two-month bender was brought on by a woman. Only a man experienced in the pangs of failed love would take it so much to heart. I find the similar characters played by Dean Martin and Mitchum in Hawks’ westerns to be the primary strengths in both films, but each actor spun his individual version so uniquely as to support the assertion that these movies are merely walking the same path at different points in a life. Martin exudes shame and hopelessness while Mitchum opts for tired withdrawal leading into a defiance even he struggles to maintain. Each man, per the Hawks tradition, ultimately does have what it takes regardless of his vices.

Seeing Mitchum in the early scenes of the film, he effectively blends into the background. Wayne’s Thornton has been offered a job by Bart Jason (Ed Asner) that involves the McDonald family. When Thornton is shot at by one of the McDonald sons, he returns fire, injuring the young man in the stomach and soon leading to his death. His remorse informs the film’s plot, though Hawks’ attention never seems terribly concerned with story. The McDonald daughter (Michele Carey) shoots Thornton as a means of revenge. His wound is then dressed back in the titular town where Mitchum’s Harrah wears a tin star as sheriff. Mitchum is playing nice both as Wayne sits with bandaged arm and an earlier scene of exposition when both men also discover they’re equally acquainted with Charlene Holt’s Maudie. One of the more glaring deficiencies in El Dorado when compared to Rio Bravo is the relationship between Wayne and the local Hawksian woman, earlier played by Angie Dickinson. Wayne was tender and sympathetic when dealing with the more fleshed-out Dickinson but it’s more standard issue this time around. He’s not nearly so interesting or effective.

As usual, Wayne instead gets by pretty well on charisma. Each of the actor’s best films had a great director guiding the performance, namely either John Ford or Howard Hawks. The Wayne mystique left unchecked was best reserved for the supremely dedicated, but when he was pushed, or, more accurately, his image was pushed, the results could transcend the star limitations. His previous westerns with Hawks were Red River and Rio Bravo, two of the finest performances and films he could possibly claim, so the reality of El Dorado not being as accomplished may seem like a disappointment. Indeed, the sheer repetitiveness and play for commercial success on Hawks’ part remains discouraging. One could say that if you want to see this basic plot just watch Rio Bravo. It’s probably there on the shelf already. Hawks couldn’t have foreseen the way we now watch movies and the sheer access we’re blessed with, but the question does come to mind as to why he’d limit himself to such a revisiting, even going a step further with the similar Rio Lobo a few years later.

This, again, may presume El Dorado a straight remake of Rio Bravo. That it’s not, that it further proves Hawks as a director who repeated himself over and over without becoming stale, should perhaps be what we discuss when these films are mentioned. The basic components of the Wayne movies and others directed by Hawks include a team of men of varying ages and levels of professionalism connected by a masculine intimacy. In El Dorado that means Wayne and Mitchum, but also their associates young (James Caan) and old (Arthur Hunnicutt) and a man on the other side (Christopher George). Though he was also quite skilled when dealing with females – Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday all immediately come to mind – Howard Hawks was perhaps the most male-oriented of any of the classical Hollywood directors. His movies are so enthusiastically attuned to the masculine perspective that the genre-skipping he’s known for seems to merely be a way for Hawks to find new milieus to address the particulars of the male psyche. It’s hardly a coincidence that he repeatedly found lead roles for many of the same movie stars and their own unique sliver of placing various forms of masculinity on the screen.

El Dorado is awash in this boys club roughhousing. Wayne is the personification of the typical masculinity in movies – honor, strength, loyalty. It’s not what I personally would define as such, but the popularity of that ideal can’t be denied. Hawks seems to be acknowledging the passing of those particular values as he both rebels against the contemporary direction of the movies and fits Wayne with that debilitating bullet. Some of Hawks’ subtleties in El Dorado are undoubtedly circumstantial, but at almost every opportunity for action and harsh bloodshed, the director pulls back a little. He’s clearly refusing any modern influences and steadfast in his confidence to make the picture his own way. This further stirs the anachronism already present from its resemblance to Rio Bravo. A movie set in the past made by aged men and sharing much with a previous chapter in Hawks and Wayne’s careers is thus antiquated without any attempt to disguise its intentions, but also without obviously feeling elegiac. Hawks would make one more film, Rio Lobo which also starred Wayne, but El Dorado may be the more fitting goodbye.

The Discs

Number 9 in Paramount’s Centennial Collection series of re-issue releases, El Dorado is given two discs, now with one attached to a tray inside the keepcase, and a thin booklet. While the art for a regal-looking slipcover box features thick black borders, the sleeve art for the case inside enlarges a shot of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. It’s released concurrently with a Centennial Collection edition of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The slightly modified 1.78:1 aspect ratio image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. This is the second time Paramount has released El Dorado on DVD, and while I haven’t seen the earlier version, the picture quality here is strong enough to almost certainly be at least equal to and probably superior. It’s a clean, progressively transferred image with strong detail and sharply-rendered colors. There’s a real depth especially in the earlier outdoor scenes that looks fantastic. I’m sure a high definition release would further improve the sharpness, but this is a pretty high quality work from Paramount. Noise is minimal and the strong bitrate really makes the most of the transfer.

A Dolby Digital English mono track has a mild hiss throughout that never proves to be a problem. The audio is spread between the two front channels and it’s actually quite potent. Some frequent gunfire and various other sounds dramatically roar out of the speakers. Volume levels are strong and consistent. For a mono track, this is, despite some obvious overdubbing at times, more lively than what you might expect. Dolby Digital Spanish and French mono dubs are also included, as are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. They are yellow in color.

Two audio commentaries tend to retrace the steps of each. In the first track, Peter Bogdanovich contributes his usual mix of exhaustingly obvious remarks, stories often involving Orson Welles or John Ford, and occasional moments of clear insight. He was actually on the set of this film for a week so, but most of the good bits of information are repeated from the documentary featurette. Bogdanovich’s stop-start commentaries are perfect examples of how flawed the idea of having someone talk over a film can be. The second, introduced by a harsh-sounding British lady, is mostly critic Richard Schickel but also has separate comments from author Todd McCarthy probably inserted to fill in some of the silence. Ed Asner, who appears in the film as Bart Jason, adds a few remembrances. The track focuses mostly on Hawks and moves along well enough, with hardly any lulls. Schickel at one point calls El Dorado a “likable” film that isn’t great, and I’d agree. Having two separate commentaries for a movie like this doesn’t really seem necessary, and combining bits of both could’ve yielded a better result, but I guess I’d pick the non-Bogdanovich track if forced to recommend one over the other. .

A second disc, single-layered, includes a collection of featurettes and galleries, highlighted by the strong 7-part documentary “Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado” (41:50). All parts can be played either individually or using the “play all” option. Though the film is the obvious topic, discussion seems to often splinter off into talking about Wayne, Mitchum, Caan, or, especially, Howard Hawks. Richard Schickel and Todd McCarthy are among those interviewed, as well as Scott Eyman, Molly Haskell, and Ed Asner, and the focus is clearly most zoomed in on Hawks. This also happens in the commentaries for the film. The pronounced influence Hawks’ career has when viewing El Dorado leads most people trying to discuss it, myself included, to see everything in terms of the director. Had El Dorado been made by Henry Hathaway or someone along that line, I doubt it would enjoy the same reputation.

A vintage featurette from 1967 is entitled “The Artist and the American West” (5:28). Featuring music from El Dorado, the piece is about American West artist Olaf Wieghorst and includes a casual visit Wieghorst has with Wayne and Hawks. His paintings can be seen in the opening titles of El Dorado, and he plays the gunsmith character of the Swede. Having this in the package was a nice idea. “Behind the Gates: A.C. Lyles Remembers John Wayne” (5:32) is another in Paramount’s frequent series of short self-tributes found in these Centennial Collection releases. El Dorado isn’t actually mentioned, but other Paramount films Wayne did, as well as an anecdote or two, are touched on by Lyles. An original theatrical trailer (3:06) promises the film as “THE BIG ONE” with “THE BIG TWO.” The Galleries section is comprised of a set of Lobby Cards (8) and three parts of stills from the Production (19, 21, 23).

The usual eight-page Centennial Collection booklet filled with photos and a couple of pages of text can be found inside the case.

Final Thoughts

Two commentaries are overdoing it, and just watching the nicely balanced featurette on disc two will give you most of the same information in far less time, but fans of El Dorado may rightfully see some appeal in an impressive transfer and a solid, never superfluous collection of extras on the second disc. My personal views on the film are that it isn’t Rio Bravo, it also isn’t as good as Rio Bravo (which shrinks against Red River), and the comparisons are more useful when studying Howard Hawks or the genre than they are supportive of the film’s stature. It’s an entertaining, almost slight work made in the wrong era by a professional near the twilight of his career.

clydefro jones

Updated: May 18, 2009

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