Film Score: Nelson Riddle Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Charlene Hold and Ed Asner
El Dorado has an impressive pedigree, directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, the story seems pretty shopworn, even back in 1966. Ed Asner comes to a small town after the Civil War and buys up all the property available. He builds a ranch and after a few years runs low on water. The problem is the guy who owns the land that controls the water, R.G. Reynolds, was there first and Asner wants it any way he can get it. The film begins with Asner hiring John Wayne as a gun hand, but when Wayne rides into town the sheriff, his old partner, Robert Mitchum, tells him what’s really going on and so Wayne tells Asner he’s not going to work for him. It sets up a typical battle between the amoral rancher and the law-abiding landowners. Of course things are never that simple. One wrinkle is that Wayne and Mitchum are in love with the same woman, Charlene Hold, and there is some obvious history between the two of them that will only gradually be revealed as the film goes on, and will probably threaten to break their united front against Asner. Unfortunately Wayne gets on the wrong side of Reynolds when he accidentally kills one of his boys, Johnny Crawford. His daughter, Michele Cary, tries to kill Wayne but only manages to lodge a bullet near his spine that the local doc, Paul Fix, won’t go near. And that’s just the first act.
Wayne decides to leave town, and the story picks up seven months later, with Wayne riding into another town and meeting James Caan as a knife thrower who kills one of the men from Christopher George’s gang. It turns out George has accepted the job from Asner in El Dorado that Wayne turned down. When he tells Wayne that Mitchum has hit the bottle to get over a woman, Wayne sets out to help him as well as repay his debt to Reynolds, with Caan tagging along. During the fifties, TV westerns attempted to emulate those on the big screen. But with the advent of color and several western television series, sixties features seem to look more like their small screen counterparts. The primary reason for this is that the majority of the film was shot on the studio lot. It’s not a major flaw, but it’s certainly noticeable. The other thing that is noticeable is the overwhelming sense of déjà vu that accompanies the film. Throughout the picture, but especially during the scenes in the town jail with Robert Mitchum, the story seems highly reminiscent of Rio Bravo, which Hawks had directed seven years earlier. The reason for this begins with the fact that when Leigh Brackett was given the original novel by Harry Brown, entitled The Stars in their Course, she felt it was the best screenplay she had ever written. Then she gave it to Hawks and he rejected it, forcing her to write what she called The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again. Hawks apparently had no problem with rehashing scenes and even entire plots that had worked well before, especially if he thought he could do it better.
For much of Hawks’ career he worked as an independent filmmaker, so in addition to complete control of the screenplay he also didn’t have anyone to answer to as long as he stayed under budget and the film runs a little long at just over two hours. It could have benefitted by being tightened up in the editing room. Other than that, however, El Dorado is definitely an improvement over the earlier film, especially in terms of the supporting actors for Wayne. Robert Mitchum and James Caan are monumentally better than Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. If anything suffers in terms of acting, it’s Wayne himself. John Wayne wasn’t at his top form for this picture, and it shows. He flubs lines, or forgets them halfway through. His gruffness is even more extreme than usual, and as a result his morality comes off as belligerent rather than honorable. Arthur Hunnicutt is along as the comedy relief, and it’s a relief that he doesn’t play it over the top as this kind of part is played in so many westerns. The film score by Nelson Riddle is good for the most part, that is until he allows a sixties ethos to sneak into the film during the ambush at the church. While it may lack some of the vitality of Rio Bravo and the story seems to lag at times, El Dorado is a solid sixties western and one of Howard Hawks’ more enjoyable westerns.