El Dorado, released States-side in 1967, is very loosely based on a novel titled The Stars in Their Courses by some literary cat named Harry Brown. I opened with that to get it out of the way. What happened was that the fantastic screenwriter (and creator of Eric John Stark, interplanetary swashbuckler!) Leigh Brackett, when she adapted book to celluloid, excised most of what Brown had wrought and so created a more rollicking narrative. Yep, El Dorado is director Howard Hawks' first remake of his earlier banging western Rio Bravo (1959), a movie so awesome and so influential it inspired a second remake by Hawks in Rio Lobo (1970), as well as countless other movies not by Hawks, most notably, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).
I count El Dorado a bonafide classic, but maybe not quite the classic that Rio Bravo is. It's absent of that original freshness. This cast is essentially a reprise of the cast in Rio Bravo. Still, Robert Mitchum brings his own droll swerve to Dean Martin's discarded drunk. James Caan's "Mississippi" exudes more personality than Ricky Nelson's "Colorado," only, Caan slyly slings poetry instead of winsomely warbling a tune. An alluring dame in the saloon hospitality business pines once more for our star, and Charlene Holt's Maudie is perfectly fine even if she's not as memorable as Angie Dickinson's Feathers. Yo, there's bugle-tootin' Arthur Hunnicutt mustering up his best ornery Walter Brennan impersonation. And, above all, there's John Wayne playing John Wayne, oh, a tad longer in the tooth but still tall in the saddle and very much capable of coming to the aid of a beleaguered old friend. Wayne's role of aging gun-for-hire, Cole Thornton, is made even more interesting by a bullet lodged next to his spine, a messed-up state that causes hurtful spasms and temporary paralysis in the most inopportune moments.
The plot, in short, concerns a range feud over water rights. The action beats pit a covetous land owner and his nasty hired guns against "two cripples, a green kid, and a noisy old Indian-fighter." The shoot-'em-up sequences are dope, mind you. Duke, Mitchum, and Caan are asskickers of the first order. But I was equally invested in Cole Thornton's relationships with the peeps around him. Duke is in his wheelhouse when he's reacting to other actors and when he's playing the cranky and baffled straight man. Mitchum, Caan, and Hunnicutt provide generous doses of levity, with Caan very startled to learn that his was a comic role. He afterwards called out Hawks on it: "Why didn't you tell me I was playing a comic part?" Hawks's reponse: "You'd have spoiled it. You'd have tried to be funny." Caan is a hoot. Mississippi sure 'nuff has got sand. He can handle himself in a scrap. But it's amusing that he's such a bad shot he has to resort to blasting with a sawed-off shotgun. And, 1ord, how he kept quoting from Poe's poem, "Eldorado," but kept on misquoting the verse "Ride, boldly ride" as "Ride, Bodie, ride." The funniest sequence has to be when the boys were trying to sober up Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Mitchum), him what's been prodigiously three sheets to the wind these two months running. By the by, I dare you to try Mississippi's infamous concoction to cure a tipsy state - ingredients include cayenne pepper, hot mustard, gunpowder, croton oil (which induces diarrhea), and asafoetida. I don't know if that spicy junk'll counter inebriation but I'd for sure like it to douse my daily breakfast burrito with.
But what an entertaining film - a colorful, raucous, action-packed, old-timey watch. Some say El Dorado lacks the focus of Rio Bravo, that it rambles around. But, to me, the plot's meanderings meant more opportunity to explore the characters, to allow us more time to know them during the minutiae of their everyday livin'. Wayne is such a big presence, he towers above all, although Mitchum isn't too far behind. It's these two impeccable screen veterans that make the thing work so beautifully. They lend gravitas to whatever's happening onscreen and a convincing sense of history between their characters, it's that kind of synergy between them. And when the time came to quit speechifyin' and commence to slapping leather, well, they're convincing there, too. And I loved the topsy-turvy manner in which Wayne's damaged (but pragmatic) gunfighter bested his big bad. When I first saw that ending, it floored me because I didn't expect Wayne to stoop to... well, go see the movie. Not quite as good as Rio Bravo, but it kicks other westerns to the curb.
Trivia time: Did you know that the paintings in the credits were painted by Olaf Wieghorst, who plays Swede Larsen - he supplied Mississippi with his mini-cannon - in the movie?