El Dorado

Posted on June 5th, 2010 in 1960s, Westerns, Howard Hawks, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne by Colin

Poster

A while back I mentioned directors remaking their own movies, citing Hitchcock and Walsh at the time. However, they’re not the only ones; Howard Hawks reworked the same material that he originally used for Rio Bravo no less than three times. In this case, I think the law of gradually diminishing returns applies - although I’m aware that there are those who might disagree. Hawks’ second trip to the well resulted in El Dorado (1966), a film that improved on its predecessor in one or two ways but ultimately remains a less satisfying work. Ok, it’s not a straight remake of Rio Bravo since it opens the story up a little more in terms of people and locations but it does use the same core situation and characters. There’s the tough professional, the drunk, the old coot and the green kid all holed up in a dingy jailhouse and under siege.

Cole Thornton (John Wayne) is a professional gunman who hires his skills out to the highest bidder. After accepting an invitation from one of the parties involved in a range war he discovers that the job would mean facing off against an old friend. Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) is the lawman caught between the feuding factions, and it’s his presence that dissuades Thornton from signing any contract. However, before Thornton can take his leave an accidental shooting leads to an ambush that results in his getting a bullet lodged perilously close to his spine. When he returns some months later he finds that Harrah has taken to the bottle in the wake of an ill-judged love affair. To make matters worse, the nearly incapacitated sheriff is in no position to cope with the ongoing range war that’s about to come to a head. Therefore, it’s left to Thornton to take charge of a rapidly deteriorating situation provoked by an attempted murder and the subsequent arrest of one of the feud’s main players. Up to this point the plot has its own reasonably unique slant. However, once Thornton, Harrah et al find themselves barricaded in the jail it’s Rio Bravo all over again. Where the original had a gentle humour, a gradually built sense of camaraderie and a frisson of sexual tension (thanks to Angie Dickinson), El Dorado rushes things a bit and lays the humour on too thick. Actually, it’s the comedic elements that do the most damage in my opinion. Much of this is based around the character of Mississippi (James Caan) - in particular, his incompetence around firearms and his questionable taste in hats. What’s worse, though, is a cartoonish fight between Thornton and a drunken Harrah that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Three Stooges short. The climax is also disappointing, the pyrotechnics of Rio Bravo being replaced with a contrived showdown that’s not much more than a damp squib.

Even legends need a little support sometimes - John Wayne & Robert Mitchum in El Dorado

In a sense, if you’ve seen one Howard Hawks picture you’ve seen them all. The same themes crop up again and again, namely professionalism and loyalty to one’s comrades. El Dorado is no exception in this respect, we have the tight knit group defying the odds and getting moral support from no-nonsense women. However, there’s a certain flatness to El Dorado, both in the visuals and the reworking of a tried and tested story. The areas where it does score over Rio Bravo are a few of the performances. I can’t honestly fault Dean Martin’s Dude, but Mitchum does bring more weight to his take on the broken down drunk if only because he’s Robert Mitchum. The biggest improvement is the casting of James Caan as the young man taking his first steps in the presence of the big boys. Although the forced jokiness of his character does tend to grate a little after a while he is certainly an actor, something that couldn’t be said for Ricky Nelson. Wayne, of course, is Wayne and it matters not a jot whether he’s playing the sheriff or the hired hand, his star quality ensures that he dominates proceedings. It is interesting to note though that the plot device concerning the bullet in his back was a convenient way to make allowances for the effects of the passage of time and the major health problems he had endured. As for the others, let’s just say that Arthur Hunnicutt, Charlene Holt and Ed Asner were no match for Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins. While I’m drawing comparisons, I might just add that Nelson Riddle’s score isn’t a patch on Tiomkin’s - although the title song played over Olaf Wieghorst’s paintings is very memorable.

El Dorado got a 2-disc release not long ago in the US as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection. I never bothered to pick that one up so I can’t comment on the picture quality, but I do know it offered a variety of extras. The old UK R2 that I have presents the film 1.78:1 anamorphic and it’s not a bad transfer. The image could, I suppose, be a little sharper but there’s really not much to complain about. Image quality aside, the big difference between the old and new releases relates to bonus features, with the earlier disc boasting nothing but a theatrical trailer. Reading back through this, I might seem a little hard on El Dorado. The truth is it’s not at all a bad western and makes for entertaining viewing - the problem is that it’s damned near impossible not to compare it to Rio Bravo, and that’s where it comes up short.

Rio Bravo

Posted on March 24th, 2008 in 1950s, Westerns, Howard Hawks, John Wayne by Colin

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“A game-legged old man and a drunk. Is that all you got?”

“That’s what I’ve got.”

When Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) hands that laconic reply to the question from his friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), it more or less sums up what the whole film is trying to say. Anybody who has ever seen a few Howard Hawks movies will know just how much store he set by the idea of professionalism. The small group of self-contained professionals is a recurrent theme in his work, and Rio Bravo may be the best example of this.

I won’t go into the plot in great detail here since it is, frankly, a little thin for a film with a running time creeping up towards two and a half hours. Chance arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder and must hold him in the town jail until the Marshal arrives. All the time, the town is under a virtual state of siege from the hired gunmen of Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell). Throw in a typically Hawksian romance between Chance and a poker playing drifter called Feathers (Angie Dickinson), and that’s it. However, this is really a character driven movie, and the plot functions mainly to provide the necessary circumstances to allow the characters to interact. It is this interaction that elevates Rio Bravo to the status of one of the great westerns. I’d challenge anyone to sit through this and not feel for these people by the end; more than that, you actually get the sense of coming to know them. Think about Chance’s coolly competent lawman who’s reduced almost to an awkward schoolboy when confronted with a sassy, attractive woman; Dude’s (Dean Martin) drunken deputy who must face down his personal demons if he’s ever to retrieve his self-respect from the whiskey bottle where he left it; and let’s not forget Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the trigger-happy cripple whose cackling and complaining adds so much warmth and humour to it all.

Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne).

John Wayne gives one of his most relaxed performances in this film and while this has been criticised by some, I think it fits the pace of the piece. The acting is understated and just plain likable from a man whose talents many are quick to criticise and slow to acknowledge. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing this part with the natural confidence displayed by Wayne. Dean Martin’s Dude remains convincing as the character gradually transforms himself from a pitiful rummy fishing for drink money in spittoons into a man proud enough to enter by the front door once again. When the doubts and temptations assail him and threaten to haul him back into oblivion, you can’t help rooting for him. The great Walter Brennan has a high time with his role as Stumpy and manages to steal nearly every scene he appears in. The only weak performances come from Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson. But if you remember that Dickinson was meant to provide eye candy, Nelson was there to draw in contemporary youth, and that the real focus was on Chance, Dude and Stumpy then it doesn’t seem so important. 

While most western directors liked to get out into the wide open spaces, Hawks opted to shoot the entire film within the confines of the town. This has the effect of creating both a claustrophobic tension and a comfortable coziness. In keeping with the theme of professional lawmen, the film itself exudes a slick professional feel. The maturity of Hawks direction can be seen in the first five minutes of the movie, when the status of the main characters and the basis of the plot are presented clearly and explicitly without one word of dialogue being spoken. The script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett may develop at a leisurely pace, but it’s always logical and it’s packed full of memorable lines. Mention should also be made of the score by Dimitri Tiomkin; it complements the action perfectly and the use of the Deguello is yet another of the joys the film has to offer. 

Didn't spill a drop. Dude (Dean Martin) fights off the temptation.

I can’t finish this piece without referring to the fact that Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon. Hawks took exception to the idea of a lawman running around town desperately seeking help from a scared and apathetic citizenry. This was anathema to a man who worshipped at the altar of the professional ethic. To Hawks, a man ought to play the cards dealt to him regardless of the odds stacked against him. Now I have no interest in discussing the politics, either implicit or explicit, of these two films but I do find myself drawn more often to Rio Bravo. While I like and admire High Noon, it concentrates on the selfish fears of men where Rio Bravo celebrates the camaraderie and warmth of humanity - I know which I find more appealing. 

For a long time Rio Bravo was only available on DVD on a bare-bones edition. Last year saw the release of a 2-disc SE with a commentary and lots of special features. Initial reports were that the transfer was significantly darker than the old version and I was wary of the upgrade. However, I eventually decided to take a chance and was pleasantly surprised. The new transfer is darker but then the old one was too washed out and faded anyway. It’s not perfect but I do feel it’s an improvement on the original and I have no regrets whatsoever about purchasing it. Maybe Rio Bravo isn’t the best western ever made but, if not, it’s only a few paces behind. Over the years, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other and I continue to enjoy it - that’s as good a recommendation as I can offer.