Tuesday, June 16, 2009


“Red River” director Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado” (**** out of ****) qualifies as a leisurely, old-fashioned oater that conjures up more hilarity with its frequent comic interludes than its serious moments. Mind you, this 1967 John Wayne & Robert Mitchum western possesses a couple of unsavory moments, principally when men brandish their six-guns and blast away at each other without a qualm. The violence here is nothing compared to the sadistic Spaghetti westerns produced in Europe during the late 1960s. Anybody who enjoys Hawks’ westerns should not be surprised that Hawks and scenarist Leigh Brackett dusted off the plot to “Rio Bravo,” essentially recycled scenes and characters from that film rather than from the cited source material, the novel "The Stars in Their Courses" by Harry Brown, published in 1962. Reportedly, Hawka retained one scene from the book and fell back on "Rio Bravo." The one scene involved the shooting of Luke MacDonald.

Hawks cast Robert Mitchum as the drunken that Dean Martin had played in “Rio Bravo.” Arthur Hunnicutt takes over for Walter Brennan, while James Caan substitutes for Ricky Nelson in a different role. Hawks changed Caan’s supporting role from Nelson’s accurate shooting gunslinger to the worst shot on the frontier. As in “Rio Bravo,” the heroes hole up in a jail with a prisoner and await the arrival of the territorial lawman while the villain’s henchmen keep them bottled up in town. This time, however, John Wayne plays a drifting gunfighter with an Achilles heel, while Mitchum wears the sheriff’s badge. Hawks and Brackett whittled down the female participation to an older woman, Charlene Holt, who walks in from time to time, but never intrudes on the action like Angie Dickinson did in “Rio Bravo.” Meanwhile, a young slip of a girl, cute Michele Carey, has a somewhat bigger part as a hot-headed babe who wounds our hero and later guns down the chief villain. Nevertheless, “El Dorado” is an immensely charismatic western with clever dialogue, interesting characters, and hilarious humor. Attention deficient audiences may complain this 126 minute melodrama drags and sags when it should raise hell and holler.

Hawks and Brackett provide the ground work for the plot in the opening scene when Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum of “Cape Fear”) confronts Cole Thornton (John Wayne of “Hatari”) in the washroom of a local saloon. Cole has come to El Dorado to hire his gun out to ranch owner Bart Jason (Edward Asner of “The Satan Bug”), but Harrah dissuades him from taking the job. Harrah explains that Jason is a greedy rancher who wants to expand his spread, but he needs water. Incidentally, the Bart Jason character resembles Hawks’ “Rio Lobo” villain Ketchum in that Jason showed up in El Dorado with a lot of money when everybody else in Texas was dead broke. Harrah elaborates that Jason wants to run the cattle rancher Kevin MacDonald (R. G. Armstrong of “Ride the High Country”) out of the country because he cannot force MacDonald to sell out to him. Cole decides to accommodate Harrah and pull out. He rides out to Jason’s ranch and refuses to hire out to him. Meantime, Doc Miller (Paul Fix) has sent warning out to MacDonald that Cole Thornton is on Jason’s payroll. MacDonald and his men scatter and he leaves his youngest son Luke (Johnny Crawford of “The Rifleman”) to serve as a look-out and fire in the air if he should see Thornton.

After Cole leaves Jason’s ranch, he rides toward the place where Luke is stationed. A startled Luke awakens, leaps up and fires at Cole rather than shooting in the air. Without a second thought, Cole plugs Luke. Luke commits suicide because he has been gut shot and feels that he cannot survive such a painful wound. Cole takes Luke’s body to the MacDonald ranch. Joey MacDonald (Michele Carey of “Dirty Dingus Magee”) vows to kill Cole. She lays in ambush and wounds him. Doc Miller refuses to extract the slug because it lies too close to Cole’s spine and he fears that he would do more damage. He advises Cole to find “one of them new-fangled squirts” to remove it, “but don’t wait too long to do it.” Cole rides off to the border for a job and winds up in a border town where he runs into scar-faced killer Nelse McLeod (Christopher George of “The Rat Patrol”) and his gunmen. McLeod and his gunmen are heading for El Dorado to take the same job with Bart Jason that Cole turned down. Another young drifter, Alan Bourdillon Traherne(James Caan of “Redline 7000”) enter the cantina, picks a fight with a McLeod gunman, and kills him with a knife in a draw.

After Cole prevents Trehearne, whose nicknamed ‘Mississippi,’ from walking into an ambush by McLeod’s vengeful gunmen, the younger man becomes his sidekick. Cole advises Mississippi to get rid of his oddball hat and get a gun. Mississippi asks Cole to teach him how to shoot, but Mississippi is such a bad shot that Cole gets him a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun with the stock cut down to a plow-handle. Initially, Cole doesn’t want anything to do with Mississippi, but Mississippi knows that Cole is heading back to El Dorado. It seems that Sheriff J.P. Harrah tangled “with a wandering petticoat” and lost. Since his ill-fated romance, Harrah has retreated into a whiskey bottle and Cole fears that Harrah will prove easy prey for McLeod. When they reach El Dorado, Maudie (Charlene Holt of “Redline 7000”) brings Cole up to speed on the situation. Cole and Harrah tangle in the jail when Cole tries to awaken the drunken Harrah. Mississippi whips together a concoction to sober up Harrah and an old frontier scout Bull (seasoned character actor Arthur Hunnicutt of “The Big Sky”) helps him acquire the ingredients.

Jason’s men wound another MacDonald and Harrah takes Jason prisoner while McLeod lays siege to the jail. Cole’s Achilles heel gunshot wound strikes him at an inopportune time and McLeod takes him hostage and exchanges Cole for Jason. The heroes, both crippled from gunshot wounds, surprise McLeod and Joe mows down Jason in a savage shoot’em up. Christopher George doesn’t get much screen time but he makes a memorable villain. Hunnicutt steals the show with his homespun humor. The byplay between Wayne and Mitchum is hilarious, especially when Wayne awakens Mitchum in the jail scenes. Mitchum is quite good playing a drunk and he shares a scene in the saloon showdown with his brother.

“Bad Seed” lenser Harold Rosson gives “El Dorado” a warm, leathery look that adds atmosphere to the action. The shot where McLeod’s henchman plunges off a church belfry and falls into the camera is terrific! “Batman” composer Nelson Riddle furnishes this western with a lively jazz type orchestral score. Veteran characters Jim Davis of “Dallas” and Don Collier of “The High Chaparral” appear in supporting roles. “El Dorado” ranks as a more entertaining western that “Rio Bravo,” but “Rio Bravo” is justly considered more classical, if for nothing than he served as the inspiration for Hawks and Wayne to reteam with Brackett handling the screenplay. Hawks and Brackett dust off another scene for some of the more violent encounters in “El Dorado.” After Mississippi shoots a McLeod man, two of McLeod’s gunmen, Milt (Robert Donner) and Pedro lay outside to bushwhack Mississippi. Cole keeps Mississippi from being shot. Three-quarters to the way into the story, Cole and Mississippi chase a villain in to saloon and find Milt and Pedro waiting for them in front of a doorway. Cole pumps Milt full with three slugs before the reluctant villain agrees to exit by the rear door, only to be shot and killed by assassins waiting outside. Hawks and Brackett pulled this gag in the Humphrey Bogart film noir thriller “The Big Sleep.” The scene where a hung0ver Harrah pursues a wounded gunman into the saloon is similar to a “Rio Bravo” confrontation where Dude (Dean Martin) pursued a wounded killer into a saloon. The scene where James Caan’s knife-throwing sidekick pronounces his name for the benefit of a fuzzy-headed Harrah is side-splitting stuff.

“El Dorado” is worth seeing several times over.

No comments: