El Dorado: Howard Hawks remade the rousing ‘Rio Bravo’ into a funny and poignant Western featuring Robert Mitchum as the drunk opposite John Wayne

Howard Hawks’ 1967 western classic, El Dorado, starring John ‘Duke’ Wayne and Robert Mitchum, was a loose remake of his own 1959 film Rio Bravo. with this film being a poignant, and often funny meditation on aging and mortality.

“The Western takes, really, a couple of forms. One is how the West started, the formation of the great cattle herds. Actually, Red River started as the story of the King Ranch . . . [one is] the period of law and order. Rio Bravo and El Dorado fell into that. We had a lot of fun in writing Rio Bravo. Because we ran into so many good situations, we said, ‘We’ll save that for another picture.’ “

Howard Hawks on El Dorado

Bo Catlett:
Only this time it ain’t no John Wayne and Dean Martin shooting bad guys in “El Dorado.”

Chili Palmer:
That was “Rio Bravo.” Robert Mitchum played the drunk in “El Dorado.” Dean Martin played the drunk in “Rio Bravo.” Basically, it was the same part. Now John Wayne, he did the same in both. He played John Wayne.

From the film Get Shorty(1995)

Howard Hawks refused to call “El Dorado” a remake of “Rio Bravo.” As he mentions in the above quote, he looked at it as a different interpretation of the same story. Howard Hawks was 69 years old when he started making El Dorado, and was coming to the end of an extraordinary career as a motion picture director. In the course of nearly fifty years of making movies, he had been responsible for some of the most popular movies made during the first half of the twentieth century: Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Red River, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Though he was never known to the  public, like DeMille or Hitchcock, or revered by the critics – always dismissed as a low-brow commercial filmmaker – Hawks had long been held in the highest esteem by Hollywood studio heads, thanks mainly to his propensity for making hit movies that brought in big profits. But Hawks had a critical reevaluation in the 50s and 60s, with mainly French and British critics championing his skill as a story-teller with a personal touch; with themes like masculine camaraderie, stoicism and sexual humiliation recurring in his movies. Also repeated in his movies was a certain kind of bold female characters, that in time came to be know as Hawksian women. So, the major change from Rio Bravo to El Dorado was that Hawks was now a critically acclaimed filmmaker, with a rabid fan following among the cahiers du cinema camp, championed by the likes of Goddard and Truffaut. Hawks, who was a cagey, ice-cold, arrogant American aristocrat (who forever claimed that he made movies only for profit), was quite amused, and privately rather dismissive, of all the critical evaluation  he was receiving, but he played along, knowing fully well that it would ultimately benefit his pictures.

Since his 1946 Noir classic The Big Sleep (which I have already gone into detail in this piece), Hawks had become a different sort of filmmaker: who just concentrated on creating great scenes and situations with an emphasis on Character development and punchy dialogue, without bothering much about the plot or story arcs. The 1950s was a tough period for Hawks. The films he made during the time – like Monkey Business and Land of Pharaohs – were flops, both artistically and commercially, forcing him to take a break from filmmaking. The sabbatical lasted 4 years, until Rio Bravo in 1959. Rio Bravo was a massive success and it brought him back in a big way. With that film, he hit up on a new formula, and when he faced setbacks again in the 60s – with films like Man’s favorite sport and Red line 7000 flopping badly – he decided to go back to the Rio Bravo formula (and to his best friend and biggest movie star in America, John Wayne) to restore his credibility. El Dorado started out as an adaptation of the Harry Brown novel, The Stars in Their Courses; Hawks’ frequent screenwriter Leigh Brackett was working on a screenplay, but soon enough everything changed and it ended up as a remake of Rio Bravo or rather a re-imagining of the same story, much to the disappointment of Brackett. She considered her original script for El Dorado as her best – a sort of Western Iliad, and detested doing a rehash of Rio Bravo; she condescendingly referred to the new El Dorado as Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again. She tried her best to reason out with Hawks and Duke – who was on the same page with Hawks on this one – by telling them that it’s too repetitive and audience would not accept it a second time around , but they stood firm by saying that “If it worked once, it’ll work again!”

The parallels between Rio Bravo and El Dorado are obvious, and it’s now part of the pop culture, as can be seen from the famous dialogue from Get Shorty quoted above.  Hawks, instead of trying to hide it, proudly draws attention towards it: Ricky Nelson played the young fellow in Rio Bravo who was a really good shot; in El Dorado, James Caan plays the young fellow who can’t shoot at all; He is a knife-fighter, who on Duke’s advice,  picks up a shotgun as his weapon, as you can’t miss with that. In Rio Bravo, Wayne was the sheriff and the deputy, Dean Martin, was a drunk; in El Dorado, Robert Mitchum played the drunk, who was also the sheriff, while Wayne played his friend, a gunslinger, who comes to his rescue; then there was a sassy female (or two this time), an old coot (Stumpy(Walter Brennan) in Bravo, here it’s Bull(Arthur Hunnicutt)), and so on. Hell! even the locations were the same: the streets of Old Tucson and the same jail set used in Rio Bravo. But in the end, the film went beyond those parallels; telling a story of male friendship, disability and growing old, and becoming a film that can stand on its own merits. El Dorado’s central relationship is that of two old comrades, one an aging hired gun (Duke’s role), the other a derelict sheriff. Hawks needed an actor who was a contemporary of Duke and wouldn’t be blown off the screen by the larger-than-life superstar. Such personages were in short supply. Mitchum, indeed, seemed an all but inevitable choice. Mitchum’s stoic masculinity, underplaying, and deadpan humor were right up Hawks’ alley. Hawks had, in fact, placed the actor on his casting wish lists for many past productions, but Mitchum’s reputation in the business as a lazy, brawling, drunk put paid to his casting. But this time, Hawks didn’t have a choice and decided to roll the dice on Mitchum. Hawks had nothing to worry, as Mitchum proved to be such a thorough professional, that by the end of the shooting, Hawks called him a fraud: for propagating such a lousy reputation about himself in the industry

As for Duke, he was coming off a big personal crisis. He had just fought off cancer, and lost one of his lungs in the process. But still, he was working at a steady pace, doing back to back films. But he had trouble breathing, so a lot of Duke’s running and fighting scenes had to be done by a double. Duke plays Cole Thornton, a gunfighter, who knows there is no such thing as professional honor for a gun man, there is only pain, suffering and eventually, death. In that regard it’s a different sort of a John Wayne role. We see him afflicted; we see him vulnerable; we also see him cheating to defeat a much younger and more accomplished gunfighter in the climax of the picture; not exactly the kind of pristine superhero we are used to seeing him as. As already mentioned, the film doesn’t really have a well rounded plot, just recycled characters and situations; not just from Rio Bravo, but also from other Hawks films like The Big Sleep, Only Angels have Wings and To Have and Have Not. Like all those  films, El Dorado too emphasizes male camaraderie in the face of crisis, but the feeling that one gets while watching this film is very different from watching Rio Bravo. This is much more funny and much more poignant at the same time, as opposed to Bravo, which is a straight, exhilarating drama. This is made on a much bigger scale than Bravo; Bravo was a one-town western in which the story unfolded completely inside the town over a period of a week. El Dorado is episodic: it consists mainly three episodes, set in three time periods, with lot more location shifts; there are more towns and more outdoor scenes of cattle drives and rocky terrain. It has much more action, much more comedy, and also a lot of pathos and a sense of regret; about lost time ,lost opportunities and approaching death; a lot of scenes are shot at night to accentuate this sense of mortality. The real pleasure, as in any Hawks movie, is in watching lengthy scenes of dialogue and stylized character behavior that borders on a sense of deliberate  repetitiveness. Every scene abounds with earthy humor and witty repartee, which keeps things extremely entertaining. But just because he depends on lengthy dialogue scenes to move the narrative forward doesn’t mean that he’s not cinematic, on the contrary, Hawks dialogues are an epitome of precise, concise cinematic language that conveys a lot beyond what is said.

Take the lengthy scene that opens the film: we see  Robert Mitchum (as El Dorado sheriff J.P. Harrah) ambling into a hotel lobby and inquiring about Cole Thornton(John Wayne). He walks into Thornton’s room and coolly points a rifle on him.  Thornton is washing his face after a shave and he recognizes Harrah from his voice We don’t know (yet) who these people are or what is their relationship dynamics. As the conversation proceeds , we realize that a) Thornton and Harrah are old comrades b) Thornton has been hired to be an enforcer by the villainous rancher Bart Jason, which would put him in direct confrontation with the Sheriff (hence the ponied rifle); Sheriff is backing the law abiding rancher Kevin MacDonald, from whom Jason wants to steal the water rights. After coming to know the truth about Jason, Thornton decides to turn down the job. Now the tension in the scene is released and the two are back being comrades, Harrah throws his rifle to Thornton, so that he could have a look-see and Thornton throws it back to him after inspecting it. At this very moment, Harrah’s girl, Maudie(Charlene Holt) enters the scene. It just so happens that she used to be Thornton’s girl (you see the significance with the exchange of rifles). They banter about it, and Thornton takes off for Jason’s ranch to turn down his job offer. After he has gone, Maudie and Harrah talks about their relationship with Thornton. We come to know that Thornton saved Harrah’s life in the civil war, while Thornton supported Maudie when she became a penniless widow (Maudie’s backstory is same as  Feathers’ backstory in Rio Bravo). Thus, In this very first scene we get the entire character history and  relationship dynamics of the three major characters of the movie; with the exposition being cleverly layered under the character development. We also get the entire set up of the film’s plot  – it will be about the battle between two ranchers and how Thornton and Harrah are going to be in the middle of it, and obviously they’re going to be on the side of justice and truth. From this point on, it’s just a matter of how?. And this ‘How’ is what is going to be dealt with in the next two hours, which in the film is going to take another year. First, Thornton visits Jason’s ranch and turns down his job. On his way back, he accidentally kill’s MacDonald’s son. Now Thornton goes to MacDonald’s ranch with his son’s corpse (paralleling the visit to Jason’s ranch; as I said, the film is all about a kind of symphonic repetitiveness). MacDonald believes that it was an accidental death, but his fiery daughter, Joey (Michele Carey), wants revenge, and she shoots Thornton from the same cliff on which her brother was killed. But her bullet does not kill Thornton, though it wounds him deeply. It’s lodged near his spine and the doctor could not get it out. On account of this, he’s going to randomly develop periodic spasms, resulting in temporary paralysis. After this incident, Thornton bids farewell to Maudie and Harrah and leave El Dorado, promising to come back some day. Here ends the first episode of the movie.

The second episode begins almost eight months later, when we find Cole in another town. Here he runs into two new characters. First one is a knife-throwing youngster nicknamed Mississippi (James Caan): whom Thornton helps out of a jam, then becomes his mentor, training him in the use of weapons and thus earning himself a sidekick. The second one is scarred-faced, hotshot gunfighter named Nelson McLeod (Christopher George), who has taken up the job of Bart Jason’s enforcer (the job that Thornton had turned down). From McLeod, Thornton also comes to know that Harrah has turned into a drunk, because of a woman who broke his heart. Which means that both Harrah and MacDonald are in danger. So, Cole and Mississippi rush back to El Dorado: to help out Harrah, and pay off Cole’s debt to the MacDonalds. The third and final episode is completely set inside the El Dorado town. Cole gets Harrah back on his feet- after some considerable effort, and they join hands – along with Mississippi and Bull – to take on Jason, McLeod and their gang. In the course of these events, we get a ‘situation’ straight out of Rio Bravo, where the drunken Harrah get an opportunity to prove his mettle (as the drunken ‘Dude’ did in Bravo; remember that Scene where the blood drips into the glass of whiskey). Here the scene is split into two: first, an altercation inside a church, where the heroes shoot at the bells to disturb the killers – Duke even repeats his line from Bravo “Let’s make some music“. The scene then proceeds to the bar, where the killer is hiding behind a piano; and as if expressing his gratitude to Truffaut ; Hawks has Mitchum shoot the piano, instead of the Piano Player (Shoot the piano player is a French new wave film made by Truffaut). This is followed by the arrest of Jason, who is put into jail. Now we are in full blown ‘Rio Bravo’ mode, with McLeod laying siege to the jail and the heroes waiting for the Marshall to arrive. We get a prisoner exchange sequence and the customary climactic shootout, in which, our badly wounded heroes – Harrah takes a bullet, Thornton’s hand is paralyzed, thanks to the old bullet wound – vanquishes the villains.

El Dorado was (and is) an enormously entertaining film. Sure, the quality of the picture sways alarmingly from absolutely brilliant to absolutely sloppy.  Just like it’s heroes, the film itself is a little meandering and out of shape, with some terrible turns from some of  its supporting actors; and sometimes the staging and costuming reminds you of a B grade western TV series that was made dime and dozen at the time, and yet, it succeeds in a way that many more ambitious and more disciplined movies never could. The best thing about the film is the chemistry between Duke and Robert Mitchum. That’s the reason why the film, despite it’s repetitiveness and sloppiness, works so well. They even manage to hide some of the continuity errors with their charisma; the most famous one being the changing crutch, were Mitchum has his right leg shot, but he has his crutches on the left hand. they make a joke of it when Duke mentions this in one of the his dialogues. The final scene has both Duke and Mitchum walking on crutches, and both holding them on the wrong side. The final scene might also hold a key to Hawks’ ambitions for this film: with its concentration on its heroes’ infirmities and physical deterioration, this appears as Hawks ultimate treatise on aging and death. This is understandable, considering that he and his lead stars were getting bogged down by old age and illness in real life.  Robert Mitchum gives a very understated, humorous performance, which is very different from Dean Martin’s performance in Rio Bravo. John Wayne, of course, is nonpareil when it comes to this kind of stuff. Cancer or no cancer, his star power, his graceful body language  and his line readings can triumph any mediocre material. Here he is called upon to a stretch a little, both his image as well as his performance. His ailing, aging gunfighter is a realist, who has no illusions about his life. His friend, the sheriff is a drunk, his girlfriend has a damaged reputation, his own life is full of pain after being shot in the back. His gun hand is often paralyzed, the result of the bullet still lodged near his spine. The lives of Thornton and the sheriff are threatened, and their only hope is to work together. Both men are experienced and survive only because they are willing to use any dirty trick available in the fight. And as we see the  two friends –  these two macho stars, who has defined virile masculinity in American cinema for a long time –  limping down the street together, we realize that their days of heroics are coming to an end, in real life and in reel life. They are now survivors rather than heroes. This gives the film a poignancy that’s not present in any of their films at the time. For that at least, this film is essential viewing.

The film was a big hit when released in 1967, the same year when Hollywood was experiencing tectonic shifts in the form of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. But somehow, today, El Dorado looks more timeless, and more enjoyable, than those zeitgeist shifting movies. El Dorado would turn out to be Hawks’ penultimate movie. He would just make one more film, Rio Lobo(1970), which was again a remake of Rio Bravo. But this time, he had clearly outstayed his welcome; the formula had run dry and the film , though still riding on John Wayne’s charisma  and Hawks’ sensibilities, doesn’t work as well as any of their past collaborations, and it  flopped badly at the box office. Hawks would retire from filmmaking after that. But El Dorado lives on as the master filmmaker’s final bang. It remains a great example of Hawksian filmmaking; a clean, straightforward, unpretentious shoot-’em-up Western that underneath its highly entertaining surface discusses some serious themes of mortality and the changing times.