El Dorado


A while back I mentioned directors remaking their own movies, citing Hitchcock and Walsh at the time. However, they’re not the only ones; Howard Hawks reworked the same material that he originally used for Rio Bravo no less than three times. In this case, I think the law of gradually diminishing returns applies – although I’m aware that there are those who might disagree. Hawks’ second trip to the well resulted in El Dorado (1966), a film that improved on its predecessor in one or two ways but ultimately remains a less satisfying work. Ok, it’s not a straight remake of Rio Bravo since it opens the story up a little more in terms of people and locations but it does use the same core situation and characters. There’s the tough professional, the drunk, the old coot and the green kid all holed up in a dingy jailhouse and under siege.

Cole Thornton (John Wayne) is a professional gunman who hires his skills out to the highest bidder. After accepting an invitation from one of the parties involved in a range war he discovers that the job would mean facing off against an old friend. Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) is the lawman caught between the feuding factions, and it’s his presence that dissuades Thornton from signing any contract. However, before Thornton can take his leave an accidental shooting leads to an ambush that results in his getting a bullet lodged perilously close to his spine. When he returns some months later he finds that Harrah has taken to the bottle in the wake of an ill-judged love affair. To make matters worse, the nearly incapacitated sheriff is in no position to cope with the ongoing range war that’s about to come to a head. Therefore, it’s left to Thornton to take charge of a rapidly deteriorating situation provoked by an attempted murder and the subsequent arrest of one of the feud’s main players. Up to this point the plot has its own reasonably unique slant. However, once Thornton, Harrah et al find themselves barricaded in the jail it’s Rio Bravo all over again. Where the original had a gentle humour, a gradually built sense of camaraderie and a frisson of sexual tension (thanks to Angie Dickinson), El Dorado rushes things a bit and lays the humour on too thick. Actually, it’s the comedic elements that do the most damage in my opinion. Much of this is based around the character of Mississippi (James Caan) – in particular, his incompetence around firearms and his questionable taste in hats. What’s worse, though, is a cartoonish fight between Thornton and a drunken Harrah that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Three Stooges short. The climax is also disappointing, the pyrotechnics of Rio Bravo being replaced with a contrived showdown that’s not much more than a damp squib.

In a sense, if you’ve seen one Howard Hawks picture you’ve seen them all. The same themes crop up again and again, namely professionalism and loyalty to one’s comrades. El Dorado is no exception in this respect, we have the tight knit group defying the odds and getting moral support from no-nonsense women. However, there’s a certain flatness to El Dorado, both in the visuals and the reworking of a tried and tested story. The areas where it does score over Rio Bravo are a few of the performances. I can’t honestly fault Dean Martin’s Dude, but Mitchum does bring more weight to his take on the broken down drunk if only because he’s Robert Mitchum. The biggest improvement is the casting of James Caan as the young man taking his first steps in the presence of the big boys. Although the forced jokiness of his character does tend to grate a little after a while he is certainly an actor, something that couldn’t be said for Ricky Nelson. Wayne, of course, is Wayne and it matters not a jot whether he’s playing the sheriff or the hired hand, his star quality ensures that he dominates proceedings. It is interesting to note though that the plot device concerning the bullet in his back was a convenient way to make allowances for the effects of the passage of time and the major health problems he had endured. As for the others, let’s just say that Arthur Hunnicutt, Charlene Holt and Ed Asner were no match for Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins. While I’m drawing comparisons, I might just add that Nelson Riddle’s score isn’t a patch on Tiomkin’s – although the title song played over Olaf Wieghorst’s paintings is very memorable.

El Dorado got a 2-disc release not long ago in the US as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection. I never bothered to pick that one up so I can’t comment on the picture quality, but I do know it offered a variety of extras. The old UK R2 that I have presents the film 1.78:1 anamorphic and it’s not a bad transfer. The image could, I suppose, be a little sharper but there’s really not much to complain about. Image quality aside, the big difference between the old and new releases relates to bonus features, with the earlier disc boasting nothing but a theatrical trailer. Reading back through this, I might seem a little hard on El Dorado. The truth is it’s not at all a bad western and makes for entertaining viewing – the problem is that it’s damned near impossible not to compare it to Rio Bravo, and that’s where it comes up short.

12 thoughts on “El Dorado

  1. Nobody has commented on “El Dorado?” That’s crazy. Colin, I must tell you that this is the first review of yours I’ve disagreed with….although I can hardly argue with your central thesis, that comparisons between “El Dorado” and “Rio Bravo” are inevitable, and that “ED” must come up short. As “Rio Bravo” is my all-time favorite western I’d have to agree, but I’ve really, really come to love “El Dorado” and can re-watch it as often as I can “Bravo” and a select few others. It belongs in that category of westerns which paint a whole world and take their time doing it (“Bravo,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” “Big Country,” “The Man From Laramie”), and for my money it’s as skillful a western as Hawks ever made. It’s easygoing, spending time with some old buddies, rather than the short-fast-thrill-a-minute ride like, say, “Naked Spur.” It’s funny, I agree with every separate thing you say about “El Dorado,” but somehow I just can’t agree that this movie is anything but one of the greatest ever made.


    • Bruce, El Dorado was one of the posts i ported over from my old site a few years ago. There were comments on it there but I was unable to move them to this place, hence the apparent dearth.

      Anyway, I actually agree with you – I think I do come across as excessively harsh on the film. I like it too – quite a lot if I’m honest – but I guess I just love Rio Bravo more, and in drawing the inevitable comparison between the two movies I ended up criticizing the later film more than I guess it deserves.


  2. Yeah, it’s that comparison with “Rio Bravo” that hurts it. And, Ricky Nelson excepted, there’s just no beating that original cast. I avoided watching “El Dorado” for years because I thought it was just an old man’s ripoff of his earlier, better work, but there is so much to love about “El Dorado.” I haven’t seen the last remake, though, “Rio Lobo.” That one, I’ve heard, stinks.


  3. Well, a year later, and still nobody else has commented on “El Dorado.” Too bad. A few months ago I bought it on Blu-Ray and have watched it many, many times and I think at this point I actually like it more than I like “Rio Bravo.” I can’t believe I’m saying that, because “Rio Bravo” has always been one of my all-time favorite films, period, much less favorite westerns, and it still is….but even though the craftsmanship is better in “Rio Bravo” (I guess, not being a filmmaker myself) I think “El Dorado” is simply more enjoyable as a movie. Even more than its predecessor, watching (and re-watching) it is like spending time with old friends, and the long running time leaves the viewer with a powerful sensation that he has lived for a time in this world, and loved it.

    I recently watched this movie back-to-back with “True Grit” and came away with even more respect for John Wayne as an actor than I had before. The two men he plays in those films could hardly be more different — if they met they’d probably end up killing each other — but somehow Wayne manages to embody both of them with that heroic John Wayne presence he took with him everywhere he went. How did he do it? I’ll never know, but I’m sure glad he did.

    By the way, Colin, you really should review “True Grit.” I think it’s missing its due, especially after the (very, very good, but ultimately inferior) remake by the Coens. Perhaps you could (assuming you like it) remind your faithful followers why it’s a great film.


    • Bruce, I completely agree on Wayne’s acting skills. It always trikes me as lazy, second-hand criticism when I come across people claiming he just played himself in every film. Most actors will retain something of themselves in the characterizations they put on screen – that is, after all, part of why they’re stars and are cast in the first place – but the trick is to vary the other aspects to match the role written for them. I’d say the majority of major stars did/do this, and Wayne did it particularly well.


  4. Really like El Dorado. Looks really fine on Blu. Wanted to honor it on this day with James Caan’s passing. He was really wonderful in this and stood toe to toe with Wayne, Mitchum, and Hunnicutt. A fine actor and his introduction scene in this is classic. One of my favorites in a western. I was just talking about that scene with someone last night.


    • Chris—I was going to say, I presume you’re not THE Chris Evans, but of course in your own life you are—I agree completely with your appraisal if El Dorado, and I’ve been thinking about Caan all day, since I learned of his passing. I believe he was the last surviving major cast member, though I’m not 100% positive. Anyway it is a fantastic movie, still my favorite western (although there are about a dozen close runners-up), and James Caan was excellent in it, as he was in pretty much everything he did.


      • I agree. So many blus have good picture and people over react and act like they are terrible. I feel we are so lucky to have them compared to previous generations.


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