When it’s below zero and the hot water heater’s busted, all you want in life is a warm blanket, a reasonable estimate from a plumber, and a comfort movie to hold you over until you can feel the sweet hot soapy suds again. This was the situation I found myself in today watching El Dorado, the 1966 Howard Hawks western starring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and a young James Caan as a band of do-gooders up against evil rancher Ed Asner and his gang of scum and villainy. Baring more than a few similarities to the superior Rio Bravo from 1959 (such as the same director, writer, star, overall plot and character types, right down to a young buck named after a state) El Dorado nevertheless finds a good amount of charm and chemistry between its three leads and brought me back to my childhood afternoons watching these films with my father.
That connection back to my childhood and the good memories I have of my father is a large reason I keep coming back to the films of John Wayne, just as I do with Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Errol Flynn. My father came to America from Germany in the early 1950s, when being a fresh German kind in the US wasn’t the most popular thing in the world. Born Norbert Heinrich Voss, he immediately told kids his name was Sam, and learned English and many of his mannerisms from the films he would absorb during the time. Those childhood films were one of the only things he could impart and serve as a bond with his awkward son – my earliest memories of him are snuggling up against a small brown corduroy pillow against his armpit enraptured at the larger than life characters on the screen.
El Dorado wasn’t one of those childhood films – I came to it much later, after hearing how similar it was to Rio Bravo, which is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s hard to look at this film objectively; comparisons to the earlier films are unavoidable. But there’s a charm to Mitchum’s drunken sheriff (played in the earlier film by Dean Martin) – Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett wisely give us a glimpse of the sheriff in his happier, more sober days before the film jumps ahead seven months to see a man driven to drink after being jilted by a woman. Seeing the vulnerability ties him to Wayne’s gun for hire Cole Thorton, who early in the film is shot and suffers from paralyzing seizures. So we have two men later in their life, broken and hurting but not enough to run from their responsibilities, a theme Hawks has played with in film more times than I can count. James Can, barring one hideously racist sequence when he disguises himself as a Chinese peasant to knock out a guard is a delight in the movie, invigorating both Wayne and Mitchum as he plays exactly opposite of them: terrible with a gun, he’s given a sawed off double barrel shotgun which never seems to do much good, to hilarious effect at the movie’s end.
I don’t think anyone will ever mistake El Dorado as a great movie, but for what it does and how it goes about it, it’s certainly a fun movie. Hawks and Brackett can craft memorable characters and moments in their sleep, and I’ll never pass up an opportunity to relive a little bit of my childhood, this time with my own son besides me.
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