#18 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
I think that the commercial and critical failure of Red Line 7000 made Howard Hawks simply retreat. He effectively remade his most successful film of the previous twenty years, Rio Bravo, using some of the same cast, another established movie star, and the same basic premise for most of the film. It worked out, providing Hawks with a box office success and a solid film to add to his impressive body of work. This is the more plot driven version of the story in Rio Bravo. Gone are the long scenes of John Wayne and Dean Martin playing off of each other, replaced by more characters and a subplot about water rights that drives the action.
John Wayne plays Cole Thorton, a gun for hire, brought on by the local landowner Bart Jason (Ed Asner) for a matter Cole hasn’t received any details on. When his old friend, Robert Mitchum’s Sheriff J.P. Harrah of El Dorado, lets him in on how Jason is trying to drive the MacDonald family off of their ranch and land in order to effectively steal their water and grow his power in the region, Cole returns his payment to Jason and rides off. As he goes, he passes the MacDonald place, gets shot at by one of the youngest sons of the clan, and kills the boy in self-defense. Returning the body to the MacDonald ranch, the patriarch is understanding, but the young sister, Joey MacDonald (Michele Carey), doesn’t take it as well and shoots Cole as he’s leaving. Her bullet lodges into his back near his spine, but he bests her in the end and rides away.
Six months later, in another town, he meets James Caan’s Mississippi, a young man out for revenge against the three men who killed the man who raised him. Visually defined by his unusual hat, Mississippi uses a knife throw to dispatch the last of the three men, ultimately saved from the rest of the group by Cole. Taking the young man under his wing after some reticence, Cole ultimately decides that the best thing for Mississippi is to get him a kind of blunderbuss of a shotgun where he can’t miss anything because he can’t shoot anything with a pistol. They return to El Dorado together, Cole pursuing the tales of his friend J.P. having become unglued and a drunk because of a woman.
Here we see the plot of Rio Bravo sneaking in before finally taking over a bit later. Cole shows up with Mississippi, finding J.P. as hopeless a drunk as Dean Martin in Rio Bravo. He’s dirty, sleeping in an unlocked jailcell, and watched over by his deputy Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt). Things have been progressive poorly in El Dorado for the past six months with Jason making further moves on the MacDonald property. There’s a chase down the street after a shooting of one of the remaining MacDonald boys where Cole, Mississippi, and a newly sober J.P. go after the three men who did it, ending with a shootout at a church before one runs into a bar. There, J.P. begins to redeem himself by finding the man behind the piano, shooting him, and then arresting Jason for his involvement. This is all almost shot for shot the same as what happens in Rio Bravo, by the way, with some variations.
As Cole leads Jason and the rest of the party into the jail, Joey shoots at Jason, missing, and Mississippi grabs her and brings her inside. Aside from a single line of dialogue, the earlier unpleasantness between Joey and Cole goes unmentioned. This is one of the reasons I like this less than Rio Bravo. This is a thread that seems like it should lead to something early but just kind of evaporates. When we first learned that it was Joey, I thought she was trying to kill Cole, to finish the job. It made the most sense based on the amount of screen time dedicated to Joey’s antipathy towards Cole rather than Jason. Anyway, with Jason in jail, we now have the same showdown. The bad guy has a gun on him in a cell, and the good guys are going to wait until the US Marshalls arrive. This happens about 90 minutes into the film rather than within the first hour.
The finale is a repeat, of course, with variations. Cole gets kidnapped, but the bullet in his back paralyzes him intermittently, leaving the bad guys to trade him for Jason, which ends up working. The bad guys then get a MacDonald boy, and our good guys have to rescue him. It’s all perfectly competent stuff.
Mitchum is probably the standout of the cast here, playing the showiest of roles in the film as the good man gone drunk and trying to collect himself. I like how Hawks brought the young James Caan along to play Mississippi as well after having led (sort of) Red Line 7000. He’s a good presence as the younger, out of his depth support to John Wayne’s steady presence as Cole.
I find the movie overall as a fun little example of the Western genre. There are more characters here taking up more screen time, so we don’t get that easy character driven feel of Rio Bravo. Instead, with more moving parts including a far more detailed introduction to the overall conflict, El Dorado has less time to cover more ground. It’s still an entertaining little tale of good versus evil, but I don’t get as invested with it as I know I could have.