EL DORADO, directed & produced by Howard Hawks, takes 126 minutes to basically retool his 1959 classic Rio Bravo. The first time around was a winning hangout for a leisurely 141 minutes, but this 1967 sojourn, fifteen shorter, feels longer. “Well, we’ll be passing through Cuervo“, one character remarks: passing around some Cuervo helps this mid-range man-mosey sit better.
Fast gun ‘Cole Thornton’ (John Wayne) and old pal ‘Sheriff J.P. Harrah’ (Robert Mitchum) team up to tackle a ruthless land baron who’s backed by a passel of killers. Thornton is hobbled by a bullet lodged near his spine, Harrah hampered by alcohol. They’re aided by poetry-quoting young blood ‘Mississippi’ (James Caan) and wry coot ‘Bull’ (Arthur Hunnicutt).
As supporting player Robert Donner observed of the relaxed $4,535,000 project, “the script was written in sand”. Hawks demanded his favored screenwriter Leigh Brackett change her adaptation of a dark-themed novel to something lighter, and the end result not only blatantly stole from Rio Bravo, but those familiar with Hawks can spot elements salted in from Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Brackett, proud of what she’d originally crafted, was unhappy, but Hawks and Wayne were satisfied. *
“I’m lookin’ at a tin star with a… drunk pinned on it.”
Wayne and Mitchum make an effortlessly solid team (ad-plugged as “It’s the Big One with The Big Two“); yappy Caan a matter of taste (Hawks, liking the brash 25-year-old, had starred him in the lame Red Line 7000 ); folksy Hunnicutt steals every scene he’s in. For sex appeal there are former models Charlene Holt (a statuesque bombshell Hawks put in three movies) and Michele Carey (fetching in a pouty-haughty way), and the bad guys are led by Ed Asner (snarling) and Christopher George, who has the best role as principled gunfighter ‘Nelse McCloud’: George impressed Wayne doing a bit on In Harm’s Way, with Duke then bringing him along later to add true grit to Chisum and The Train Robbers.
Starting with the generic title tune, Nelson Riddle’s score feels wrong, the pace dawdles, the costumes are too generic, it feels set-bound, so familiar it creaks. Still, with the durable leads, line-teasing from Hunnicutt, confident threat from George, form display from Holt and bursts of violent action, it passes matinee muster (bring tequila). Able types on hand include R.G. Armstrong, Paul Fix, Jim Davis, Johnny Crawford and John Mitchum (Bob’s younger brother).
“Somebody’s out there with a gun.” “Everybody in town’s got a gun.”
At the time, critics carped it was old hat: tired actors and a dimming director beating a dead horse. The bile tide, led by the barfing of see-monster Pauline Kael (forget westerns: did she even enjoy food?) eventually shifted to waves of praise, insisting the elder statesmen and their paid vacation had something deep to say about aging. Fans of Duke and Mitch, with no culture-explaining aesthetes axe to grind, enjoyed the cow-patter and booming gunplay and paid out $15,000,000, placing it 19th for the year, just behind Wayne’s enjoyable, less-celebrated The War Wagon. It scored internationally as well, particularly in France and Japan.
* Harry Brown’s 1960 novel “The Stars In Their Courses” is an intense 362-page range war epic. The only thing the film has in common are two character names and one scene. Brown had co-written scripts for Wayne’s Wake Of The Red Witch and Sands Of Iwo Jima as well as A Place In The Sun and Oceans 11. He asked his name be taken off the credits for El Dorado. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett was proud of her first script from the essentially tragic material of the book (“I wrote the best script I have ever written”) but Hawks insisted on eviscerating it, saying “I read it and said ‘Hey, this is going to be one of the worst pictures I’ve ever made. I’m no good at this downbeat stuff'”. She acceded, then scathingly referred to the scuttle and revamp as ‘The Son Of Rio Bravo Rides Again’. Brackett had done Bravo for Hawks, as well as The Big Sleep and Hatari! She’d later bow to his “that’s good enough” bidding for 1970’s Rio Lobo, yet another rehash of Rio Bravo. Hawks’ last movie, Lobo was a moneymaker (thanks to Wayne) but a lazy dud from a creative perspective, and a lame capper to the director’s storied career. Meanwhile “the rolling Rio Bravo rolls along”.