>> Monday, December 1, 2008
USA/C-126m./Dir: Howard Hawks/Wr: Leigh Brackett/Cast: John Wayne (Cole Thornton), Robert Mitchum (Sheriff J.P. Harrah), James Caan (Alan Bourdillion Traherne a.k.a. Mississippi), Charlene Holt (Maudie), Arthur Hunnicutt (Bull Harris), Ed Asner (Bart Jason)
El Dorado is often referred to as a remake of Rio Bravo (1959), but that isn’t entirely accurate. Both films feature a similar look, tone, cast of characters (including a lawman turned drunk), lead actor (John Wayne), and even several of the same sets; but the story is unique. That said, writer Leigh Brackett borrowed several plot and thematic elements from Rio Bravo (a film she previously co-wrote) for the second half of the picture. However, Western films as a whole share so many iconic elements that it is unlikely that anyone would of noticed the borrowed material if director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne had not been involved with both movies.
Wayne plays Cole Thornton, a hired gun who comes to El Dorado to check out a job offer from a land baron, Bart Jason (Ed Asner of all people). Jason wants Thornton to muscle a family off valuable land and take care of the town Sheriff (Robert Mitchum) should he get in the way; but Thornton turns the offer down flat. The job goes against the gunfighter’s principles and the sheriff just happens to be an old friend. Of course, no virtuous stand ever goes unpunished, and Thornton ends up with a bullet in his back. At this point, the narrative jumps forward by six months, and things start to get Rio Bravo-y. Thornton decides to go back to El Dorado when he hears that the sheriff has become a boozer and that a new group of hired guns are headed towards the town. Horribly outnumbered, the gunfighter and drunken lawman try to keep the peace with only the help of an old Indian fighter (Arthur Hunnicutt) and an inexperienced hanger-on (James Caan) who is rubbish with a gun.
Like Rio Bravo, El Dorado is more of a story about sobering up than one about drinking, so it is fitting that the most memorable scene in the movie involves James Caan’s recitation of the ingredients of “Johnny Diamond’s Sober-Up Fast Sauce” and the subsequent concoction and consumption of the medicinal muck. Mitchum’s reactions after swallowing the foul mixture are the highlights of the film. Otherwise, the “sober up the sheriff” subplot receives short shrift. Alcoholism was used much more effectively as a plot point in Rio Bravo, where Dean Martin’s alky agony was more thoroughly explored.
On the whole, El Dorado comes up short when compared with the previous Hawks/Wayne collaboration. Of course, it is an unfair comparison, because Rio Bravo is one of the most iconic and entertaining Westerns ever produced. However, El Dorado does surpass the previous film in one aspect--the casting of James Caan as the young foil for John Wayne. Caan was a much better actor than Ricky Nelson, and he steals the picture with his humorous characterization.
While not quite on the same level as Rio Bravo, El Dorado is great fun and well made. There are much worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Drinks Consumed--Whiskey and beer
Intoxicating Effects--Brawling, hangover, and the shakes
Potent Quotables--HARRAH: What the hell are you doin’ here?
THORNTON: I’m looking at a tin star with a drunk pinned on it.
Video Availability--El Dorado is available on DVD from Paramount as a standalone title or as part of The John Wayne Century Collection.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--Rio Bravo (1959), of course.