El Dorado (1966)
El Dorado opens with a montage of paintings by celebrated Western artists Olaf Weighorst. These beautiful pictures in many ways reflect the nature of the movie, depicting a stylised representation of the Old West that despite its beauty, never really existed. Director Howard Hawks includes every possible genre trope and meme into El Dorado but far from being a handicap, it makes the movie a perfect distillation of Hollywood Western. The pairing of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum is sublime as the two effortlessly riff off each other. If you need an example of how the Western is the most flexible and accessible movie genre, then El Dorado is a text book example.
Wayne plays Cole Thornton, a hired gun who travels El Dorado to pursue a potential job offer from Rancher Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Jason needs Thornton to remove my any means, a rival rancher who own the local water rights and to also take care” of local Sheriff J P Harrah (Robert Mitchum). Thornton refuses the contract as Harrah is a friend and subsequently leaves town. Six months later Thornton returns to El Dorado to find his friend has become a drunk after being crossed in love. The range war has also escalated and Bart Jason now has a formidable army of men, led by notorious gunman Nelse McLeod (Christopher George, sporting an excellent scar and contact lens). Outnumbered, Thornton and Harrah try to keep the peace with only the help of an old Indian fighter (Arthur Hunnicutt) and an inexperienced greenhorn called Mississippi (James Caan).
The mid-sixties were a very interesting time for Hollywood as writers and directors tired of the status quo, started pushing boundaries of movie ratings. El Dorado blends traditional Western machismo with Greek tragedy and plenty of sassy dialogue. It is also quite violent for the times, something that becomes more apparent with the clarity of the latest Blu-ray release. Although predominantly set bound, the film does have some scenic what location work. The chemistry between the two leads is by far the movies strongest selling point and their real life friendship is clear. Leigh Bracket’s script is loaded with wise cracks, Western philosophy and musings on the Code of the West. Caan and Hunnicutt are great foils.
On release El Dorado was considered to be a little old school compared to the emerging revisionist trends of the time. The ballad that plays over the opening credits, sung by George Alexander and The Mellomen, is very traditional. Nelson Riddles score conversely has quite a contemporary arrangement. The movie sits squarely between the old and the new. Its theatrical release was delayed by Paramount so that it would not clash with Nevada Smith, which depicted a far more cynical and bleaker interpretation of the West.
Over the years El Dorado has grown in critical and public acclaim and is now rated more highly than it was upon its initial release. Roger Ebert gave the film a near-perfect rating at 3 1/2 out of four stars, stating “El Dorado is a tightly directed, humorous, altogether successful Western, turned out almost effortlessly, it would seem, by three old pros: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and director Howard Hawks”. The movie certainly made an impact upon me as I saw it as a child and has stayed with me over the years. I still have a soft spot for Edgar Allan Poes poem Eldorado that is quoted by James Caan throughout the movie.