A wonderful western supported by great acting skills, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado keeps you entertained until the last minute. The legendary Howard Hawks and John Wayne stay true to themselves, while other talents are also put forward in this film which notably explores gender relationships – a theme that is rarely taken up in works of the genre.
In this 1966 western set in post-Civil War Texas, Cole Thorton (John Wayne), a talented gunslinger, joins the town of El Dorado to help his old friend sheriff J.P. Harrah ( Robert Mitchum) after hearing he became a drunk. With the help of Mississippi (James Caan), a young greenhorn from the East, and old Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicutt), the sheriff assistant, the two men try to protect a family from an unsavory rancher who lusts after their land.
For those who have seen Rio Bravo, also directed by Howard Hawks, El Dorado will look familiar. The storylines of the two films are roughly identical, featuring a party of four men who unite to enforce the law on villains in a small Western town. What is more, the scripts of the two movies were written by Leigh Brackett, and John Wayne features in both films.
However, the two movies present distinct characteristics, and while Rio Bravo seems to be following the ‘Western Recipe’ to the letter, El Dorado appears as more elaborate, showing characters with more psychological depth, and more refined and substantial dialogues. This aspect of the movie is heightened by the actors’ great performance, especially James Caan, who brings a freshness that his counterpart in Rio Bravo failed to provide.
Of course, this movie, too, is filled with Western cliches, depicting a myth of the West rather than a credible account of how life was in this region. The men don’t get in the world without a horse and a gun, and their hats serve as a token of their pride. A few Mexican people appear, always playing secondary roles, reminding the viewer that the scene is set close to the Mexican Border. The landscapes also correspond to the West as Hollywood invented it, picturing steep canyons and arid areas dotted with cactus.
The name El Dorado comes from the eponymous poem by Edgar Alan Poe. It describes the trip of a “gallant knight” to the town of El Dorado. Poe wrote this poem as a reaction to the California Gold Rush of 1849 which, although it did not last very long, helped forge the myth of the West. The story of the movie was inspired by the 1863 Western novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown.
Paintings by Olaf Wieghorst appear during the credits at the beginning of the film. These also follow a certain ideal of the West, picturing men with their horses in impressive landscapes and carriages on their journey toward the West. The original soundtrack was composed by Nelson Riddle, who skillfully produced a musical theme which perfectly fits and enhances every scene.
With today’s blockbusters almost always displaying a love story interwoven in the plot of the movie, it feels refreshing to get away from the usual romantic pattern in this testosterone-filled world. And the two women who stand out in El Dorado have interesting personalities. The first one, Maudie (Charlene Holt), is a widow who almost ended up being a prostitute when her gambler husband died, leaving her penniless. The other, Joe McDonald (Michele Carey) is an archetype of the Hawksian woman, going against the norm of gender places in society.
This film follows the tradition of the Western genre, displaying the main features that helped build the Western imagination. But apart from offering great panoramas and horse riders, El Dorado fulfills wonderfully its role as an entertainment movie. Though not a recent production, the film has not become outmoded at all and, supported by a great cast with admirable acting skills, its two hours just fly.
Producer: Howard Hawks, Paul Helmick
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Harry Brown (novel), Leigh Brackett
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: John Woodcock
Art Direction: Carl Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Nelson Riddle
Cast: John Wayne (Cole Thornton), Robert Mitchum (Sheriff J.P. Harrah), James Caan (Alan Bourdillion Traherne), Charlene Holt (Maudie), Paul Fix (Dr. Miller), Arthur Hunnicutt (Bull Harris), Michele Carey (Joe McDonald).