El Dorado Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of El Dorado. The third of Howard Hawks’ four Westerns with John Wayne is an entertaining variation on the themes first used in “Rio Bravo”. Sadly, the DVD is no better than adequate.

El Dorado, the third of four Westerns that Howard Hawks made with John Wayne, is basically a spin on the plot of Rio Bravo with Robert Mitchum in the role of the drunk instead of Dean Martin. But it’s unfair to dismiss the film in the way some critics have as been simply a carbon copy of the earlier success. While El Dorado is less purely entertaining than Rio Bravo it’s more thoughtful and moving, using its predecessor as a starting point rather than a simple template.

The premise is familiar. J.P.Harrah (Mitchum) and Cole Thornton (Wayne) are old friends who catch up with each other in the small Texan town of El Dorado. JP is the sherrif and Cole is a gunslinger for hire who has been offered a job by the corrupt local cattle baron Bart Jason (Asner). JP advises him to refuse, since Jason is trying to grab land belonging to a long established El Dorado family, the McDonalds. However, the tense situation leads to Cole shooting the youngest McDonald son in muddled self-defence and getting shot by by the fiesty daughter Joey McDonald (Cary) in return. The bullet doesn’t kill Cole, instead sticking in his back next to the spine. It can’t be easily removed by the local doctor but Cole decides to leave it where it is and he intends to move down to Sonora to work for the mining company. But a chance encounter in a small border town with McLeod (George), a fellow gunman for hire, leads Cole right back to El Dorado where he and the sherrif must fight against a mercenary force that Jason has assembled in order to drive the McDonalds out of town. Unfortunately, in the six months Cole has been away, JP has become an alcoholic wreck who is the standing joke of the town. Cole has to cope with the mercenaries and stand up for law and order with only a drunk, Mississippi – a kid who can’t shoot a gun throws a mean knife (Caan) – and Bull, a “noisy old Indian fighter” (Hunnicutt) to help him.

In other words, this is Rio Bravo revisited, but it’s not that simplistic. While the earlier film was a glorious celebration of the classic genre staples, El Dorado is haunted by the spectres of age, pain and death. Cole’s shooting of Luke McDonald in the first fifteen minutes seems to cast a dark cloud over the rest of the film, his guilt nicely symbolised by the bullet working its way against his spine and leaving him paralysed for minutes at a time. The presence of Maudie (Holt) is a constant reminder of the past, since she has shared a somewhat ambiguous relationship with both men, and the past seems to hang heavy over the film. This is, of course, not only the past of the narrative but the past of the stars, especially John Wayne. El Dorado is interesting in that it’s one of the few films in which he gets to express genuine remorse at having shot someone. It’s as if, for the first time, the past is catching up with him. An awareness of ageing and failure are compelling additions to Wayne’s stereotyped good guy. In this sense, Hawks’ film fits very nicely into the burgeoning sub-genre of the “Late Western”; films which use the genre to look at the realities of violence and death and the contrast between myth and reality in American history. There had been Late Westerns before of course – Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and My Darling Clementine fit nicely into this category – but it was in the sixties that the sub-genre really kicked off. The titanic shade of The Wild Bunch hangs over the whole cycle of course, but El Dorado is interesting because it’s directed by Howard Hawks, a man at the end of his career obviously looking back at his work. He claimed that El Dorado was an attempt to go back to Rio Bravo and “get it right”, but I think what he has done is taken his earlier masterpiece and put moral shading into it. The villain here, McLeod, is oddly philosophical, refusing to kill Cole out of “professional courtesy”, and he despises his own men when it takes four of them to kill one. The agonies of Luke McDonald are vividly presented and it’s interesting that Cole allows him to committ suicide rather than finishing him off personally. In contrast, the drunk scenes with JP are played for rowdy slapstick, but that tends to come across as the sentimental indulgence of an old director working with congenial stars and letting them have fun. The film seems intended to build up to a spectacular gunfight climax, but in fact the big showdown comes 30 minutes before the ending and the actual conclusion is strangely muted and meditative. Hawks can still produce a great action set-piece when he wants to – the fight in the old church is an absolute cracker – but his interest seems to be elsewhere. Like John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn, Hawks seems to be fascinated by the myths he has created in earlier films and plays around with the conventions he has established throughout his career. He did this with his other favourite genre too incidentally, the screwball comedy, in the hilarious, innuendo-packed Man’s Favourite Sport. But there’s a genuine sense of mythic poetry here, not least in the constant quotations from Edgar Allen Poe’s great quest epic “El Dorado”.

The slightly downbeat tone of much of El Dorado doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have plenty of fun and action to offer. Wayne and Mitchum are obviously having a wonderful time playing off each other, notably in the very funny brawl they have when Wayne wakes up his old pal after a heavy binge. There’s a sense of contented familiarity here, with both stars fitting nicely into well-established grooves. Wayne’s comic timing has rarely been better, honed and sharp in a way that you don’t quite expect and he still looks credible in the action scenes, albeit distressingly aged. Mitchum is as relaxed as ever – although Hawks insisted that his well known casual attitude to acting was merely a front, saying “he’s the hardest working guy I know” – but strangely poignant in places, especially when he realises how much of a joke he has become in the town. In the pivotal role of the young kid, James Caan shows early promise of how good he was going to be in the following decade. It’s an interesting role, since it reverses the usual convention, making Mississippi inexperienced and nervous rather than irritatingly cocky. His failure to ever become much good with a gun is a nice spin on the usual convention as well. The rest of the cast, apart from Christopher George’s excellent villain, are less memorable. In particular, the two women are peculiarly side-lined for a Hawks film, with neither Charlene Holt nor Michelle Cary making much of an impact. It also has to be said that Arthur Hunnicutt’s old timer is a rather poor substitute for the wonderful Walter Brennan.

El Dorado is, as you would expect, very well made by a team of Hollywood professionals. Harold Rosson’s lighting is often stunning, especially in the night scenes, lending even the more studio bound scenes a feeling of authenticity. Nelson Riddle’s music score is memorable, notably the splendid title song, and the editing is often very sharp, notably in the bell tower sequence. Leigh Brackett’s script is packed with memorable lines – Wayne’s description of his alcoholic friend is particularly fine, “A tin star with a drunk pinned on it”. The original novel on which the film is based, “The Stars In Their Courses” by Harry Brown is considerably more downbeat but I think Brackett and Hawks made the right decision in lightening it while keeping some of the more serious elements since the darker overtones of the finished film are more than enough to give it substance.

I don’t think that El Dorado is one of Hawks’ best films – it’s too rambling and repetitive to really gel in the way Rio Bravo does – but it is a hugely enjoyable Western that is always intelligent and entertaining. The way it deepens Wayne’s customary character with an awareness of mortality and failure is fascinating in itself, not least because it does so in a much more dignified way than the vastly overrated True Grit two years later. It’s certainly Hawks’ last film of any real note; Rio Lobo from 1971 is mildly enjoyable but a great disappointment in most departments. As the last hurrah of a great director, El Dorado can be considered essential viewing.

The Disc

Like Warner Brothers and MGM, Paramount have decided not to put any real effort into releasing the Western classics of Howard Hawks on DVD. I can only repeat my all too familiar cry of frustration that genuine works of American art such as these are being sidelined on DVD in favour of mindless blockbusters, trendy arthouse fare and foreign language films. Where are the Criterion editions of Peckinpah, Hawks and Aldrich ? Why have Allan Dwan, Leo McCarey and William Wellman fallen out of sight when America should be celebrating their achievements just as proudly as France trumpets Jean Renoir or Truffaut ? Why do the epics of David Lean command a vast international audience when the equally, if not more impressive, epics of Anthony Mann are consigned to Bank Holiday afternoons and 4:3 pan/scan discs ? If you want a special edition of a John Ford film you have to get it imported from France. Citizen Kane is a great, great film but it’s not the be-all and end-all of Hollywood art. Vincente Minnelli was as great a film artist as Ingmar Bergman or Frederico Fellini but you wouldn’t know it from the selections available from DVD stores. Martin Scorsese’s valiant attempt to restore the reputations of forgotten filmmakers in his “Personal Journey Through American Movies” seems to have passed most audiences by. Just the other day someone on the DVD Forums said you had to by-pass Hollywood if you wanted really interesting filmmaking. That’s rather depressing, not only because it’s not really fair but also because such views go unchallenged and the studios releasing DVDs don’t seem to have any interest in correcting them. I spend most of my reviewing time on films produced in America and released before 1980, not only because I feel someone in the UK should be reviewing them but because I genuinely love them and think they are films that need seeing by a wider audience. How many people, having watched an enjoyable bit of fluff like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid on the very nice special edition Fox DVD, then go on to watch proper westerns like Ulzana’s Raid or Pat Garratt And Billy The Kid ? Or perhaps to investigate the Hawks films with John Wayne or the Ford Cavalry Trilogy ? I really hope the answer is “lots of them”, but I fear it probably isn’t. That’s genuinely sad.

Anyway, onto the disc in hand. Like the R2 Warner Brothers release of Rio Bravo, it’s adequate without being particularly impressive.

The picture quality is generally pretty good. It’s an anamorphic transfer framed at approximately 1.78:1. Considering that it hasn’t been restored it looks surprisingly good if inevitably dated. It has a slightly soft appearance which is characteristic of the film itself, although I would have liked sharper detail in places. Excellent colours throughout however and not much grain. Artifacting is evident in places but not constantly. Generally a pleasing image.

The sound quality is not quite so good. It’s a mono track, reproducing the original sound recording, but it is very flat and sometimes a little distorted. The music comes over well but the dialogue tends to sound a little muddy. Again, restoration of the audio elements would have been an obvious improvement.

The only extra is the amusing theatrical trailer – IT’S THE BIG ONE…WITH THE BIG TWO ! There are a paltry 14 chapter stops, which is pretty poor for a two hour film, and static menus.

A fascinating film which is well worth watching, El Dorado has been rather poorly served on DVD. Worth buying if you’re a die-hard Western fan but otherwise missable. A missed opportunity.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jan 07, 2002

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
El Dorado Review | The Digital Fix