Howard Hawks was a legendary director and producer, but perhaps his most famous works exist in that of the most American of genres – the western.
A more cynical cuss might suggest that his famous trio of oaters Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, bare a suspicious resemblance (more on that later) but there’s no denying their stopping power as proven classics of the genre. Taking up that familiar trope of a motley group of do-gooders overcoming such individual obstacles as failing health, alcoholism and being a shit shot with a six shooter in order to stand up to an unscrupulous rancher, the three movies each have their merits and while Rio Bravo may stand as being arguably the most well known, the second film, El Dorado manages to forge it’s own furrow thanks to a central powerhouse trio.
Paunchy gun slinger Cole Thornton returns to the town of El Dorado in order to earn from the purse of wealthy landowner Bart Jason, however, as he freshens up after his long ride he’s met by his old friend by Sherriff J.P. Harrah’s who has some valuable advice. It seems that Jason isn’t exactly on the up and up and has a mind to swipe the land from the neighbouring MacDonald family and so, because he’s a stand up sort of dude, Cole agrees not to throw his hat in with his new employer after all. However, on the way back from tendering his resignation, an unfortunate string of events leads him to mistaking shooting the Macdonald’s youngest song which results in him getting shot in the back by the family’s hellcat daughter, Joey. Surviving the wound, Cole leaves town without having the bullet removed and over time he starts having bouts of temporary paralysis whenever the bullet presses against his spine, but being the typical find of man who never discusses his problems he pushes on and eventually forms a bond with the extravagantly monikered Allan Bourdillion Treherne (aka. Mississippi), a garrulous young man who is at a loss since his two year hunt for vengeance has recently ended. However, Cole bumps into a fellow gun slinger who he learns has been hired for the position he turned down months earlier and that Sheriff Harrah is a probable target.
Heading back to El Dorado with Mississippi in tow, he finds his friend J.P. is now a drunken shell of a man after a woman has run out of him and his frequent intoxicated appearances around town have made him a laughing stock.
Realising that his friend is in danger and can no more protect himself than a lemmings armed with a nerf gun, Cole takes it upon himself to sober up his friend and prepare from the coming attacks by Jason’s men on both the Sheriff and the long suffering MacDonald family. But can this rag-tag group possibly hope to outwit, let alone out shoot a bunch of killers when one of their number is shit faced, another can’t shoot his way out of a wet paper bag and Cole himself is prone to seizures that nullifies the speed of his gun hand?
If there’s any one thing that could count against El Dorado gaining classic status, is that the movie is so similar to Hawks’ previous epic, Rio Bravo, that for all intents and purposes it might as well be a flat out remake for which then he tried a third time with Rio Lobo – however, the sheer strength of the cast manages to undercut the familiarity of the story with style to spare. Yes, John Wayne may pretty much play the same role in all three movies – but then you could argue he plays a similar role in virtually every movie he’s ever made and that didn’t exactly hurt his rep. As Cole, the Duke brings the same brash, stand up, son-of-a-gun decency that was pretty much his trademark for his entire career and his banter with Robert Mitchum’s crestfallen Sheriff is worth the price of admission alone. “What the hell are you doing here?” Drawls Mitchum as he staggers around in his long johns. “I’m lookin’ at a tin star with a drunk pinned on it.” Counter crawls Wayne.
As great as this banter is, putting it over the top is the swaggering, up-beat nature of the brazen youth of James Cann’s Mississippi, a punk kid who has to employ the use of a ludicrously overpowered sawn off shotgun to make up for the fact that he couldn’t hit the sea if he fell out of a damn boat.
It’s these character touches that make the movie so endearing and the fact that each of the protagonists have a glaring weakness makes the outcome of a John Wayne movie slightly less certain and the sight of the Duke tumbling off his horse thanks to his ever more frequent bouts of paralysis is genuinely worrying.
Elsewhere, the production values are lush and the pace is great although the excitable score from Nelson Riddle frequently sounds much like his work on the Batman TV series and constantly makes you think Wayne’s about to take a call from Commissioner Gordon any minute, but this isn’t anywhere near close to derailing a good, old fashioned buddy movie that backs up its righteous gunplay with spirited banter and fleshed out characters.
Surely most surprising for a western dominated by tough talking dudes, El Dorado, with all its robust characters and blustering banter was written by Leigh Bracket, a woman who specialized in sci-fi fiction and who also worked on an early draft for – wait for it – The Empire Strikes Back and her script, coupled with the professionalism of a filmmaking team of old pros gives us a film that’s deeply humorous while still feeling like it’s stakes matter.
Simply nothing more than an expertly made western that stands out as a classic of it’s kind, El Dorado may not exactly have originality on it’s side, but as you watch its heroes attempt to win over the old west in the name on decency, they’ll effortlessly win you over too with the power of their quick-draw patter.