1960's films, Arthur Hunnicutt, auteur theory, based on a book, Charlene Holt, Christopher George, cinema, classic films, Cole Thornton, drunk sheriff, Ed Asner, El Dorado, favorite films, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, friendships, George Alexander and the Mellomen, gunfighters, Harold Rosson, Howard Hawks, iconic film scores, James Caan, John Wayne, Leigh Brackett, male friendships, Michele Carey, Mississippi, Movies, Nelse McLeod, Nelson Riddle, ranchers, Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, Robert Mitchum, romance, Sheriff Harrah, The Big Sleep, The Empire Strikes Back, The Long Goodbye, the myth of the Old West, the Old West, the Wild West, The Wizard of Oz, theme songs, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, water rights, Westerns
If you’re anything like me, selecting one film as your “favorite” is probably a pretty impossible task. My likes can change based on mood, time of day, the weather outside, research I’ve done, other films I’ve seen and conversations I’ve had with other cinephiles. If 100 different people were to ask me the same question, they might receive any of seven or eight different answers, depending on any of the above. Rankings, of course, are a strictly arbitrary construction: if it seems difficult to select your favorite film of all time, try choosing your fourth favorite film of all time…at some point, it all just comes down to a question of personal preference. Truth be told, I don’t know that I could ever come up with a definitive answer to the question, although I’ll make damn sure to take a stab at it on my deathbed. By that time, hopefully, I’ll have been able to make up my mind a little better.
While it may be all but impossible for me to ever choose a “favorite” film, however, it’s a whole lot easier to choose the possible candidates. From my childhood all the way up to the present day, there have been some films that just get more attention from me than others. This group of films (more than five but less than ten…I think) still gets watched on a regular basis, at least once a year if not more often, despite my ever-present desire to continue to see as many new and previously unseen films as humanly possible. Some of this group of films tends to be seasonal (Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978) and Dougherty’s neo-classic Trick ‘r Treat (2007)), whereas others are good to go anytime, anywhere (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Goodfellas (1990)). The one common thread that all of these films share is that I never get tired of them, regardless of how many times I’ve seen them. Each viewing of these favorites bring me some deeper understanding of the films and solidifies my notion that these films are, for better or worse, the very best (at least as far as I’m concerned). If you’ve spent nearly 30 years watching the same film and aren’t tired of it, I think you can pretty much assume you never will be. In this vein, Howard Hawks’ legendary El Dorado (1966) must surely take a position of honor in my list: I first saw the film when I was a little boy and have loved it unconditionally ever since. After 30-odd years, El Dorado is still as fresh, fun, thrilling and fist-raising as it ever was.
I like to think that I’m able to view films with a particularly critical eye but there are still certain movies that produce an almost Pavlovian response in me: Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) get me with their scores, The Man With No Name trilogy and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre get me with their openings and Dirty Harry (1971) gets me pretty much every damn time Eastwood is on-screen. With El Dorado, my adrenaline starts pumping the second the opening kicks in and that glorious theme song, performed so perfectly by George Alexander and the Mellomen, begins. For my money, El Dorado may just have one of the most perfect opening credit sequences in the history of film: as Alexander’s tuneful baritone begins the tune by referencing Edgar Allen Poe’s eponymous poem, we get a series of old-fashioned oil-color paintings that depict various mainstays of the Old West: the range-riding cowboy, covered-wagon riding settlers, stampeding herds of mustangs and dusty twilight landscapes. Alexander’s mellifluous voice continues to rise, creating a truly cinematic moment: you feel not only the history and “reality” of the Old West but you feel the myth and legend, as well. Never mind that the song is absolutely brilliant, perhaps the best Western theme song ever: when combined when the paintings, the tune manages to not only tell a story (in some ways, the whole of the film is in there, writ small) but to flood the viewer with the notion that what we’re about to see is just as much glorious make-believe as it is reference to a real era. Regardless of my mood on any given day, just watching the opening credit sequence for El Dorado is enough to put a smile on my face and keep me humming along for the next 24 hours.
We begin with Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), the sardonic, dead-eye sheriff of the frontier town of El Dorado. Harrah’s best friend, the plain-talking hired gun Cole Thornton (John Wayne), has come through town in order to go see land baron Bart Jason (Ed Asner) about a potential job. Turns out that Jason wants to use Thornton to help steal water from the MacDonald family, in order to help with his own developments. Harrah talks Thornton out of taking the job and Cole hits the road, leaving behind his “best girl” Maudie (Charlene Holt) and Sheriff Harrah to keep the peace. On the road, Cole is forced to gut-shoot Luke MacDonald (Johnny Crawford) after the startled lookout starts shooting at the gunslinger. After the boy ends up taking his own life, Cole brings the body back to the MacDonald ranch: “Never send a boy to do a man’s job,” he tells the elder MacDonald and he’s right. So right, in fact, that MacDonald’s fiery, take-no-shit daughter Joey (Michele Carey) decides to head-out and wait for Thornton on the road. While her ambush doesn’t kill Cole, as planned, it does leave him with a bullet in his back and plenty of residual pain.
Seven months later, Cole returns to El Dorado and finds the place in a bit of an uproar: Sheriff Harrah has turned into the town drunk (and laughing-stock) thanks to a bad relationship and Bart Jason rules everything with an iron fist. He’s brought in a ruthless gunslinger, Nelse McLeod (Christopher George), to finish the job that he tried to start with Cole. Things aren’t looking too good for Cole, who’s still experiencing pain and loss of feeling from the bullet which is still lodged near his spine. Things get a whole lot better when Cole happens to meet young Mississippi (James Caan), however: Mississippi is a bit of a hot head and is completely wet-behind-the-ears but he’s also whip-smart, fiercely loyal and absolutely lethal with a hunting knife. If he can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a sixgun…well…that shouldn’t be too much of a problem: as Cole points out, you don’t need to aim with a sawed-off shotgun…you just gotta point and shoot. After cleaning up the sloshed sheriff, Cole, Mississippi and Harrah join forces with Harrah’s deputy, former “Indian fighter” Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), in order to bring down the villainous Bart Jason. The bullets are gonna fly as Cole and his friends seek to bring peace to El Dorado one way or another.
In many ways, El Dorado functions as a remake of Hawks’ own Rio Bravo (1959): the basic plot is the same and many of the characters in El Dorado seem to be slight variations on the characters from Rio Bravo. John Wayne plays, essentially, the same character in both films, while Robert Mitchum, James Caan and Arthur Hunnicutt are just variations on the characters that Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan first established in Rio Bravo. That being said, however, El Dorado is anything but a pale imitation of Hawks’ earlier film. For one thing, Mitchum is miles above Dean Martin as far as acting goes: sorry, Dino, but them’s the facts. When Mitchum was on point, he was pretty much invincible and Sheriff J.P. Harrah might be his best role besides Night of the Hunter (1955). I’ve also got nothing against Ricky Nelson, whose Colorado Ryan is a nice addition to the “naive, wet-behind-the-ears gunfighter” club but compared to James Caan? Sorry, Ricky…lights out on this one. Caan is absolutely fantastic in El Dorado, striking a perfect synthesis of “newbie jitters” and ridiculously self-assured braggadocio. His plain-spoken, painfully honest declarations would be the highlight of any lesser film but, here, are just another brick in a pretty amazing wall. And as for Brennan versus Hunnicutt? This is a tougher call but c’mon: Bull is such a kickass character that Hunnicutt almost wins by default.
On top of those stellar four, we get a virtual constellation of glittering stars to support them. Ed Asner does villainy up right with the merciless Bart Jason but Christopher George is a revelation as Nelse McLeod, the second-best gunfighter in the area (after Cole Thornton, of course). Coming off as a more handsome, if no less nutty, Willem Dafoe, George is able to make McLeod more than a worthy adversary for Wayne’s Thornton. One of the best moments in the film is the part where McLeod watches in curiosity (and admiration) as the “unarmed” Mississippi steps up to one of McLeod’s men and demands retribution for a previous killing. George could have played the scene any number of ways but the quiet, slightly amused tone to his delivery and his obvious interest in seeing the outcome of the skirmish mark him as a much more complicated villain than simply another “black hat.” Likewise, the part where McLeod tells Thornton that “with two like us in the same batch, sooner or later we’d have to find out who’s faster” is a masterpiece of economy, giving us not only a little good old-fashioned foreshadowing but some great character development, as well. McLeod’s laid-back, if ruthless, attitude also leads to one of the film’s funniest, most tense moments as Thornton has McLeod exit the saloon first, in order to foil Pedro (John Gabriel) and Milt’s (Robert Donner) ambush attempt. His arch, slightly bemused delivery is pitch-perfect, going miles towards establishing his begrudging respect for Thornton.
Phenomenal acting aside, El Dorado is a marvel of filmmaking craft, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that Hawks produced and directed the film. A true film auteur in every sense of the word, Hawks was an amazingly adept filmmaker who, along with John Ford and Sergio Leone (go ahead and shoot me but I’ll be damned if Leone isn’t at least as responsible for the modern Western as his American counterparts) was pretty much responsible for the entire world’s view of the American West during the Golden Age of cinema. Here, Hawks is pretty much flawless: working with legendary cinematographer Harold Rosson, he’s created perhaps one of the finest evocations of the “mythical Wild West” ever put to film. El Dorado would actually be Rosson’s last film, capping off an astounding 51 year career that included such mainstays as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Asphalt Jungle (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Bad Seed (1956). While the photography in El Dorado is absolutely gorgeous, full of bright, vibrant and crystal-clear images, Rosson’s use of lighting really makes everything stand out. Favoring hard, directional lighting, Rosson often produces shots that resemble German Expressionism which, when combined with the beautifully artificial sets, tends to create a real fairy tale atmosphere. It’s heady stuff and none more so than towards the end of the film, where Thornton, Harrah and Mississippi stalk the deserted streets of El Dorado, picking off McLeod’s men one by one.
One aspect of El Dorado that can’t be lauded enough is the excellent, witty script, courtesy of screenwriter Leigh Brackett (Rio Bravo, Hatari! (1961), Rio Lobo (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)). The script is tight and filler-free (at slightly over two hours long, it actually feels like about 90 minutes), full of great dialogue, one-liners and asides. One of my favorite parts of the movie is the scene where Mississippi finally meets Maudie, Cole’s kind-of/sort-of girlfriend. Up to that point, Cole had been pretty tight-lipped about his past, frustrating his young partner’s attempts to get to know him. After laying eyes on the comely Maudie, Mississippi lets out a low whistle: “Well, I found one thing out,” he tells Cole. “What’s that,” the laconic gunslinger snaps back. “You know a girl,” Mississippi replies, without missing a beat. It’s a great moment between Caan and Wayne and but one example of an exceedingly fun script.
In all honesty, I really can’t find enough good things to say about El Dorado: it’s been one of my all-time favorite films since I was a boy (this and Clint Eastwood’s Westerns were the only ones I truly loved, as a boy, and I really couldn’t stand John Wayne until I was much older) and my love and appreciation for the film have never waned. Not only is it my favorite Howard Hawks film, it’s also my favorite John Wayne film and one of my favorite Mitchum and Caan films, which actually says alot. When I went to re-watch the film for purposes of my recent “film festival,” I went into it with the goal of being as critical as possible: it’s often too easy for us to simply accept our childhood loves unconditionally, without giving them proper critical consideration. I was ready to tear the film to pieces: after all, I used to love Clerks (1994) and find it to be absolutely pointless as I approach forty years on Earth.
But then, of course, a funny thing happened: the more critical I became, the better the film held up. The movie looks and sounds gorgeous, is filled with instantly memorable characters, has tons of iconic set-pieces (like Mitchum and his crippled quarry in the saloon) and has some really insightful points to make about friendship and duty. Wayne, Mitchum, Caan and Hunnicut make a perfect team, Asner and George make perfect villains and Michele Carey is one of the most amazing spitfires to ever grace the silver screen. In short, El Dorado is an absolutely perfect film. If I had my way, everyone would be required to see it at least once, regardless of their feelings about Westerns, in general. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. If you’ve seen it in the past, go ahead and watch it again. In many ways, El Dorado represents the very best that “film as entertainment” has to offer: it might not change your life but it may just make it a whole lot happier.