- Rated NR
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All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ith the help of its TV-friendly vibe and the support of high profiles fans like Quentin Tarantino, Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” remains possibly the most popular of all classic-era westerns. The laid back seriocomic oater starred John Wayne as a tough frontier sheriff in conflict with a powerful rancher; Dean Martin as his easygoing deputy ruined by the bottle and a bad woman; teen idol Rick Nelson as a young whippersnapper able to work miracles with a gun; Walter Brennan as a wily coot; and gorgeous newcomer Angie Dickenson as the ultra-sexy female gambler who keeps Wayne guessing throughout. Though the kind of unassuming film that feels like a cult hit, it was actually an immediate success on its original release in 1959.
Five or six years later, however, the classic era was dead, and the title characters of “Bonnie and Clyde” were coming to shoot up the corpse, but older filmmakers for the most part saw no reason to change. Howard Hawks, moreover, had never been had a problem with cannibalizing his past. If something worked once, why not let it work twice? So in the wake of a couple of non-western box-office bombs, he decided that the downbeat western adaptation of a novel by Harry Brown that science fiction novelist and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (“Rio Bravo,” “The Empire Strikes Back”) was drafting would instead become a laidback seriocomic oater. It would star John Wayne as a tough frontier gun-for-hire in conflict with a powerful rancher; Robert Mitchum as an easygoing sheriff ruined by the bottle and a bad woman; James Caan as a young whippersnapper able to work miracles with a knife; character actor Arthur Hunnicut as a wily coot (Walter Brennan was unavailable); and attractive newcomer Charlene Holt as Wayne’s sexy girlfriend, who occasionally confuses him. Hawks denied it was a remake, and for the first third of the film, the plot appears to be leading elsewhere, but by the one-hour mark we’re watching the movie Brackett referred to ruefully as “The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again.”
“El Dorado” opens with one of Hawks’ very favorite things: two old pros, standing around talking. As Wayne’s freelance gun and Mitchum’s smooth sheriff trade quips, there’s actually a small possibility that the two pals could end up with their guns pointing towards each other. From there, however, after the mistaken and tragic killing of a young man and Mitchum’s off-camera alcoholic bender, things lighten up considerably. Wayne comes into conflict with Ed Asner, gruff but not at all lovable, as a slimy local cattle baron. In the film’s only really substantial variation on “Rio Bravo,” Wayne also starts sizing up Christopher George as a gunman who just might be his equal. The professional respect the two adversaries share, even as it becomes increasingly inevitable that one will kill the other, is not original, but is interesting to watch.
Now, there are people in the world who will try to argue that “El Dorado” is better than “Rio Bravo.” Those folks live on a different planet than I. “El Dorado” boasts a wonderful rapport between John Wayne and Robert Mitchum – a great actor who courted his somewhat underrated stature by pretending to be slightly lazy. James Caan, in a pre-Sonny Corleone role, practiced a similar low-key charisma and also works up a nice rapport with Wayne. Still, Hawks’ penultimate western doesn’t add up to a whole lot more than an affable retread. With the possible exception of Christopher George’s amoral gunfighter, its cast almost never has the opportunity to create the kind of humorous and poignant moments you find in “Rio Bravo,” nor do its action sequences have the same lucid drive as the brilliantly constructed action sequences in the earlier movie. The production values are outstanding as usual, however, and Hawks takes some interesting visual chances. The sometimes-derided work by veteran cinematographer Harold Rosson (“Singin’ in the Rain”) looks fabulous to me.
“El Dorado” is almost undoubtedly not only a lesser film than “Rio Bravo,” but also like a lesser film than Hawks was originally signed on to make. Nevertheless, it’s still a nice serving of entertaining comfort cinema for dedicated fans of classic era filmmaking.
Centennial Collection DVD Review:
Paramount has fashioned another handsome package, starting with a terrific looking and sounding transfer that gives us the kind of picture quality that’s reminiscent of what we might have seen in a roadshow engagement in 1967. The picture looks superb and the sound, including Neal Hefti’s music – which occasionally sounds distractingly similar to some of the music he composed (reused a la Hawks?) for the “Batman” TV show not long after – really pops. Features on Disc One include two very interesting commentaries, the first from a perkier than usual Peter Bogdanovich, who visited the set as a young movie historian. The second features former Time film critic Richard Schickel, historian Todd McCarthy, and actor/activist Ed Asner, who downplays any hint of conflict with the conservative Hawks and Wayne.
Disc Two features a strong 40-minute featurette on the making of the film and Hawks’ filmmaking style, “Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado.” Also on the disc is a 1967 promotional short featuring John Wayne and Hawks on western artist Olaf Wieghorst, whose work adorns the opening credits, and who also appears in the film as a gun maker. Finally, there’s “Behind the Gates: A.C. Lyles Remembers John Wayne,” featuring the 90-something producer reminiscing about the legendary star. In addition, serious fans will enjoy a better than usual gallery of very cool lobby cards and black and white stills and candid shots from the “El Dorado” set.