“If it worked once, it’ll work again!” John Wayne is said to have bellowed at screenwriter Leigh Brackett during the constant script revisions of El Dorado. The 1967 film was originally intended as an adaptation of Harry Brown’s novel The Stars in Their Courses, a tragic Western take on The Iliad in which Wayne was supposed to die at the end. But director Howard Hawks started feeling skittish after the twin box office failures of his critically reviled Bringing Up Baby redux Man’s Favorite Sport? and the kitschy racetrack romance Red Line 7000, in which the 69-year-old director unsuccessfully tried to get groovy with the young folks. Besides, Wayne had recently been released from the hospital after losing half a lung to cancer. Was anybody really in any mood to watch the Duke die?
El Dorado became not a new adventure for the director, this screenwriter, and their star, but rather a strategic retreat, the trio for all intents and purposes remaking their most recent triumph, 1959’s Rio Bravo — one of the greatest and most purely enjoyable of all films. Brackett, who considered her script for The Stars in Their Courses her finest work, was unenthused about the self-plagiarism, derisively referring to El Dorado as “Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again.” (Though it’s worth noting that she signed up for this drill once more a few years later, when Hawks pulled the same trick for his final film, 1970’s distinctly less engaging Rio Lobo.) Released in America the same summer as Bonnie and Clyde, the year The Graduate topped the box office, this shambling, backlot cowboy comedy with its two long-in-the-tooth leading men must have felt like a dinosaur, which is indeed a big part of El Dorado’s considerable charm. The movie is as comfy as a pair of old slippers.
In her pan of the film, Pauline Kael said, “you have the sense of having come in on a late episode of a TV series,” which I think was Hawks’ whole intention. He’d conceived Rio Bravo partially in response to the popularity of television Westerns, after noticing how audiences tuned in week after week to spend time with characters whose company they enjoyed, regardless of the episode’s adventures. The picture’s laid-back, hangout atmosphere was by design, locking Wayne’s blustery sheriff, Dean Martin’s washed-up drunk, Ricky Nelson’s singing sidekick and Walter Brennan’s rascally old coot together in the wild west’s roomiest jailhouse for luxurious expanses of screen time. It’s one of those films that gets better every time you watch it because the comedy all comes from behavior. The more you get to know these people, the more they start to feel like your friends.
“No story, Bob. Just you and Duke,” was how Hawks pitched El Dorado to Robert Mitchum. He knew he needed a star of Mitchum’s magnitude to hold the screen opposite Wayne in the Dean Martin role of a once-formidable ally who’d crawled up inside of a bottle. (A teaming of titans who’d both appeared in The Longest Day but never shared a scene together, the ad campaign for El Dorado announced “It’s The Big One With The Big Two!”) Arthur Hunnicutt assumed the Walter Brennan part of a crotchety old jailkeep, with Ricky Nelson replaced by Hawks’ Red Line 7000 leading man, a twitchy, 25-year-old up-and-comer named James Caan — the character of Colorado rechristened Mississippi, in case you were wondering how closely the self-referentiality hews to self-parody.
After opening with some surprisingly heavy holdover material from the Brown book, El Dorado eventually gets down to business with delightful banter and largely improvised hijinks, coasting on the camaraderie that was Hawks’ stock in trade and the easy, avuncular charm of one of Wayne’s most relaxed performances, and one of Mitchum’s silliest. Wisely deciding not to try and top Dean Martin’s sad, soulful take on the character, the coolest of all movie stars is at his most endearingly clownish, pulling cross-eyed faces and performing pratfalls with aplomb.
It all comes to a head when the fellas lock up a corrupt cattle baron played by Ed Asner (Lord, how I’d love to hear what he and Wayne talked about on set) and as in Rio Bravo, turn the jail into a makeshift fortress. The ad-libbed antics alternate between the appalling — Caan’s “ching-chong” impersonation of a Chinese vendor is especially ugly — and almost avant garde fourth-wall breaking, as when Wayne starts making fun of how Mitchum’s bullet wound seems to switch legs between scenes. (There’s even a playful shoutout to Francois Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player.) Ambling through the same old story, it’s a case of familiarity breeding affection, not contempt.
There’s also a touchingly autumnal sense of diminishment in El Dorado, explicitly addressing infirmity and old age in ways unthinkable for these stars just a few years prior. Wayne turned 60 the year the movie came out. (Mitchum was ten years Duke’s junior but lived hard enough to pass as his contemporary.) These characters are constantly coming up short, Wayne suffering chronic pain from an old bullet wound in his back and Mitchum hobbled by apocalyptic hangovers. Wayne even gets captured by the bad guys, rendered helpless in ways we’re not used to seeing. When it comes time for the final showdown against the best gunslinger around — strikingly well played by Christopher George — Wayne only wins by cheating, admitting he couldn’t beat him fair and square. The movie ends not with our stars riding off into the sunset, but hobbling on crutches, laughing and limping their way into legend.