El Dorado (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 2 June (6.30 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

No Bond today, ITV focusing instead on the French Open and and an England friendly match. With Euro 2012 starting on Friday, one wonders whether 007 will be kicked around the schedules for several weeks to come – heaven knows what Q Branch would make of that…

Still, there’s plenty within the schedule elsewhere to chew upon. 5USA – a channel that remains relatively virgin territory where this site is concerned – serves up El Dorado as its early evening offering. A film made in 1966 but held back for the best part of a year (unless you were lucky enough to live in Japan) to give Nevada Smith a clean tilt at the box office and again to accommodate The War Wagon, it now feels like something from the previous decade. By the time it was released to American audiences, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had been unleashed onto the States after a successful European run and the clash of styles was a jarring of old and new perspectives. Leone approached Fistful with a mind to deliver something fresh, vital, visceral and separate from the oft-stagnant production line of American Westerns. El Dorado remained true to its classical roots. The latter, while no slouch in terms of ticket sales, couldn’t compete culturally and has become a footnote in the careers of its stars (John Wayne, Robert Mitchum) and famed director Howard Hawks. The unavoidable impression that it’s a retread of Hawks’s own Rio Bravo didn’t help its critical summation as personifying a genre that had run out of gas.

In 2012, El Dorado can be enjoyed thoroughly on its own merits, of course, without needing to place it within the context of its initial release. And it is, at heart, a perfectly watchable picture that plays right into the affections of Wayne fans. The Duke plays Cole Thornton, a gunslinger for hire who rejects a contract with rancher Bart Jason (Edward Asner) when he realises it would pitch him against an old friend and the Sheriff of El Dorado, JP Harrah (Mitchum). The months pass. Thornton has teamed up with a young greenhorn named Mississippi (James Caan) and via him learns that a slick gunfighter has taken up Jason’s offer of work. Figuring the danger this spells for Harrah, he returns to El Dorado with Mississippi, who’s freshly armed with a fearsome shotgun, only to find JP in his cups and utterly unable to help himself, let alone anyone else, as the villains close in.

From here, El Dorado effectively becomes Rio Bravo, the three unlikely buddies holed up in the sheriff’s building alongside Harrah’s wisecracking deputy, Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), and facing huge odds. As in Hawks’s previous film, it celebrates the diverse ‘family’ that’s been pitched together, and whilst it’s an idealised version of the Western it’s an altogether winning one. Wayne plays Wayne, naturally, but Mitchum is a more effective soak than Dean Martin and Caan wipes all memories of Ricky Nelson off the screen. Fortunately, the latter quotes Poe’s poetry rather than sing and is on hand largely for his comic asides. Apart from one utterly awful and dated gag (providing 5USA doesn’t cut it – which would be understandable – you really can’t miss it), he’s very good in the part.

The downside of the film is that it’s little more than comfort viewing. It says nothing new about the genre, simply retreading old ground and filling in the gaps with comedy (a fight between Wayne and a pissed Mitchum is played entirely for pratfalls). Most of the hard edges from Harry Brown’s source novel were smoothed out by Hawks and Leigh Brackett, only an early tragedy retained to showcase Wayne’s nobility and to remind us the Old West was a tough place. Not that there’s anything so wrong with its attempt to show us more of the same. Its ideals and values – really those of Rio Bravo – have been copied many times, showing there’s always life in this old dog. Speaking of which, Pauline Kael might have criticised Wayne and Mitchum for their ‘exhausted’, middle-aged performances, and she might even have had a point, but they seem entirely relaxed in their roles, at ease with the world their characters live in, which only adds to the film’s overall charm. And I think it’s with affection for Hawks’s old world vision that El Dorado should be viewed.

El Dorado: ***

2 Replies to “El Dorado (1966)”

  1. Very nice Mike. I think Kael was very hard on The Duke and Mitchum – they actually play off each other very well. And it’s unwise to write off Hawks at this stage.
    Personally, I prefer Rio Bravo, but this is pretty good and it has plenty of spirited defenders. Caan is an improvement on Ricky Nelson (obviously), but I miss Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan, and the Deguello.
    The movie is streets ahead of Rio Lobo too.

    1. Thanks Colin. I whipped that Kael comment from Halliwell (which I still often consult after watching something, out of habit) and liked its harshness, though I agree there’s an element of ‘harsh for harshness’s sake’ about it. Hopefully I gave it a fair crack – it seemed to me that, within the context of its time, it’s a fairly minor work, but I quite enjoyed it and agree Caan is light years ahead. I have Rio Lobo on the same set as this one but haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. I admit to being a little underwhelmed at doing Rio Bravo again. Too soon perhaps.


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