Ace gunfighter, Cole Thornton (John Wayne) rides into El Dorado, a small town somewhere in Texas, where he reunites with civil war buddy, J.P. Hannah (Robert Mitchum), now the local sheriff. Upon realising J.P. is the man he’s been hired to kill, Cole turns down the job with local tycoon Bart Jason (Ed Asner), who wants to grab land off a family under J.P’s protection. Riding home, Cole is shot at by the MacDonald family’s youngest son and returns fire. Unable to withstand the injury, the boy commits suicide. Full of remorse, Cole returns his body to the MacDonalds, but daughter Joey (Michele Carey) refuses to believe the death was accidental. Following an ambush, Cole spares her life but is left with a crippling injury, still plaguing him months later when he learns hired killer Nelse McLeod is gunning for the, now-drunken, sheriff of El Dorado. Cole teams up with amiable, young drifter Mississippi (James Caan) and they ride to J.P’s rescue. But with J.P. a burnt out drunk, Mississippi unable to shoot straight, and Cole suffering from occasional seizures, can they face down an army of gunfighters? Like the Duke says, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Hollywood’s greatest all-rounder, Howard Hawks delivers what is arguably the last, great, old-fashioned western. Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and a slew of revisionist westerns would soon change things forever, but here there are good guys and bad guys, a happy ending, the streets are clean, clothes are spotless and Michele Carey just about gets away with coiffed hair, lip gloss and eye-shadow. El Dorado is warm, witty meditation on the nature of heroism and growing old, full of rip-roaring shootouts and knockabout comedy (check out the cartoon expression on Mitchum’s face when he’s conked on the head).
Often considered a replay of Hawks’ magnificent Rio Bravo (1959), it’s less a remake than a variation on a theme and, one would argue, bests its progenitor in some areas. The set-up is very different from Rio Bravo, less mythic, but conceptually richer, playing up Cole’s guilt over the shooting and contrasting the laidback professionalism and camaraderie he shares with J.P. with the dog-eat-dog attitude of Bart Jason’s gunmen. Cole’s recurrent back spasms (a physical manifestation of his guilt) leave him vulnerable in several scenes that ratchet up the tension. Leigh Brackett’s good humoured screenplay is enhanced by Hawks’ love of improvisation and the easygoing charm of a perfectly paired John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Apparently, Mitchum was romancing a beautiful college student offset, which is how he got himself to look so drained and wasted. What a guy.
Hawks mastery of cinema shows in the way Cole, J.P. and Mississippi’s stalking of the gunmen is simultaneously suspenseful and funny. The shootout at the chapel and bell tower is an inspired set-piece, outstandingly edited to the rhythm of bullets clanging off the church bells (“Let’s make some music!” roars Cole) it reaches a visual crescendo when a dead bad guy plummets right onto the camera, blotting out the screen. Hawks’ knack with tough, sexy, vivacious heroines (his female characters are some of cinema’s greatest) continues with Charlene Holt simmering admirably through Leigh Brackett’s feisty dialogue. She doesn’t quite erase memories of Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, although Michele Carey’s comely cowgirl fares better - redeeming herself by saving Cole’s life and bantering through her romance with Mississippi. Aside from his woeful Chinaman impersonation, James Caan easily eclipses Ricky Nelson’s performance in the earlier film, playing a far more intriguing young hero. Mississippi is given a great introduction, wandering into a saloon to avenge the murder of an old gambler who was his mentor/father figure and is the source of a running gag involving characters’ incredulous reaction whenever he reveals his real name. Similarly well-drawn is Christopher George’s surprisingly honourable and fair-minded villain. Fans of Italian horror will recognise George from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) a.k.a. The Gates of Hell. He gets a great, final face-off with John Wayne and a killer closing line.
El Dorado wound up an even bigger hit than Rio Bravo, prompting Hawks to try his luck with a third variation: Rio Lobo (1970).