Friday, April 8, 2016


Howard Hawks and John Wayne made some great movies together.

EL DORADO (1966) is not one of them.

Howard Hawks ranks as one of the great directors of the 20th century American cinema. He began making films in the silent era (1926) and ended his long and illustrious career in 1970. Hawks proved himself a master of many genres including film noir (THE BIG SLEEP (1946)), screwball comedy (BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), BALL OF FIRE (1941)), crime (SCARFACE (1932)), war (SERGEANT YORK (1941), AIR FORCE (1943), science fiction (THE THING (1951)), musicals (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953))  and westerns (RED RIVER (1948) and RIO BRAVO (1959)). Those last two starred genre icon John Wayne and both are great films.

The films listed above are merely the cream of the crop of the Hawks filmography. His films were always consistently well made and worth watching no matter the subject matter. A Howard Hawks film was almost always a good film.

But the argument can be made that after RIO BRAVO, Hawks ran out of creative gas. He kept working but his output was less than stellar and frankly disappointing. HATARI! (1962), another John Wayne adventure movie, is bloated and pokey with no real story or conflict and it only comes to life during the animal trapping sequences (which are very well done). MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT? (1964) was a failed rom-com with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. RED LINE 7000 (1965) is a racing picture starring a young James Caan that seems better suited to the exploitation/drive-in circuit given the setting, characters and plot. Next came EL DORADO (we'll get to that in a minute) followed by RIO LOBO (1970), another John Wayne western which proved to be Hawks's last film. Not a great way to finish out a long and illustrious career but certainly not a weak enough fade away to tarnish the man's reputation as an important filmmaker.

EL DORADO, which I watched for the first time the other day is not a bad film in and of itself. It's just that I've seen it before. And so has anyone reading this who has ever seen RIO BRAVO. DORADO is a virtual remake of that earlier film as was RIO LOBO. That's going to the same well three times with diminishing results each time.

DORADO has a screenplay by noted science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett. Hawks liked Brackett's work as she wrote or contributed to the screenplays of THE BIG SLEEP, RIO BRAVO, HATARI!, MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT? and RIO LOBO. She also wrote THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) (another Raymond Chandler adaptation) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). So both Hawks and Brackett share some of the blame for recycling material from BRAVO into DORADO, although DORADO is credited to being based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown.

The evidence speaks for itself. John Wayne stars as Cole Thornton, a gun for hire in the post Civil War west. Robert Mitchum is Sheriff J.P. Harrah, a man with both a badge and a drinking problem. James Caan is Mississipi, a reckless young man out for revenge. Arthur Hunnicutt is Deputy Sheriff Bull, a cantankerous old coot who fancies himself a veteran Indian fighter. There are not one but two beautiful women as love interests for these men: Charlene Holt as Maudie and Michele Carey as Joey.

The four male leads are tasked with keeping a prisoner, land baron Bart Jason (Ed Asner) in jail. They're up against an army of hired guns led by Nelson McLeod (Christopher George). There are a couple of well staged action sequences but there's also a helluva lot of talk and expository info dumps in the 126 minutes of running time.

Everything matches up perfectly with RIO BRAVO. Wayne is Wayne. Mitchum is the drunk lawman played by Dean Martin. Caan is a substitute for Ricky Nelson. Hunnicutt is channeling Walter Brennan and it takes two hotties to fill the tights of smoking hot Angie Dickinson. Hell, even the town and jail set look the same and I'd swear that are scenes in the jail that are framed, shot and written almost exactly as they were in BRAVO.

Still the film was a box-office smash when it was released in 1967. Wayne's name on a movie marquee still sold tickets as did Hawks's name on the credits. Mitchum was no slouch either as far as movie stars go and old fashioned westerns were still popular, the genre having yet to fully experience the paddles to the chest shock of the cinema of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.

EL DORADO is an entertaining film and it's not a bad way to pass an afternoon. But I honestly wish there was something fresher, something more original going on. I've seen RIO BRAVO and it's far and away the better film.

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