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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

El Dorado (1967)


Dir: Howard Hawks - Cast: John Wayne (Cole Thornton), Robert Mitchum (J.P. Harrah), James Caan (Mississippi), Arthur Hunnicut (Bull Harris), Charlene Holt (Maudie), Michele Carey (Joey), Ed Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Paul Fix, Christopher George 

The second of Howard Hawks' Rio Trio, the three movies with John Wayne battling the evil forces with the help of a friend, an old timer and a greenhorn. It's virtually a remake of the first movie, Rio Bravo, but some people think it's one of those remakes that are better than the original.

Duke is a professional gunfighter called Cole Thornton, who's asked by cattle baron Bart Jason to join his army of gunmen. But he turns down the job because his former friend J.P. Harrah, now the sheriff of El Dorado, has told him that Jason is a tyrant who drives farmers off their ranch. One of those farmers is the stubborn MacDonald and Thornton feels an obligation to him, because he has accidently killed his son. When Jason is arrested, Thornton joins his old friend (who has become a drunkard in the meantime) and defends the town with the help of the abovementioned trio of assistants.

El Dorado is better paced and more action oriented than Rio Bravo. While not particularly violent, the action scenes are also a bit more potent. At the same time it has been labeled as 'Rio Bravo played for laughs' (1). Maybe this label doesn't do the movie justice, but the comedy is definitely more accentuated here than in Rio Bravo. The treatment of Mitchum's alcoholism verges on parody and there's an awful lot of raillery about James Caan's strange hat and long name, Alan Bourdillion Traherne (that's why he's called Misssisippi). But Hawks was mighty good at comedy and some of the verbal disputes between Wayne and Mitchum are genuinely funny. There's a famous scene involving a young doctor who asks Mitchum to put a finger in a flesh wound still bleeding, while he's having a lengthy discussion with Wayne about a bullet in his back (put there by Macdonald's daughter Joey, who wanted to revenge her brother!). And then there's this amusing scene with a sobered up Mitchum asking for privacy while having a bath.

Most people (even those who prefer Rio Bravo) think El Dorado has the better cast. I'm not sure about this. There's some wonderful interplay between Wayne and Mitchum, but Dean Martin was simply more effective as the inebriated lawman who needs a good friend to fight off his demons. James Caan is okay, but Charlene Holt is by no means Angie Dickenson. The film scores with a few supporting roles. Arthur Hunnicut - as the irascible old timer Bull Harris - is  refreshingly different from Walter Brennan's Stumpy (it's never a good idea to copy a type) and Christopher George is remarkable as Cole Thornton's colleague and opponent, a gunslinger who has been dreaming for years to beat the older man in a duel. George was a B-actor who was merely okay when he was supposed to carry a movie, but he could be extremely effective in smaller roles (he would play a similar role opposite Wayne in Chisum), especially when he was asked to play an ambiguous character: his black-clad gunman is a sort of dark knight, evil-minded, but with a strong sense of chivalry.

There's no doubt that El Dorado is a great movie, it's lively, colorful, exciting and often funny, but I still think Rio Bravo is the best of the Rio Trio.

Note:

(1) Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to westerns, p. 66

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