El Dorado (US, 1966)

Hollywood greats

It’s easy to imagine John Wayne and Howard Hawks deciding to, just as De Niro and Scorsese did with The Irishman, do what they knew would work. So they made what was essentially a remake of Rio Bravo, of seven years earlier; Leigh Brackett is one writer common to both though the source material is different. Now it is difficult to get non-franchise films made (even if you are a bone fide star-director partnership), then it was the fading Wayne and 70-year-old Hawks who were scrambling around for something the studios would accept. In 1966 the majors had lost the plot and it’s unlikely that reported $6m domestic box office (the_numbers) encouraged further backing of old school westerns. Hawks directed one more film, Rio Lobo, also starring Wayne, released in 1970; although Wayne did win an Oscar for True Grit (1969) that took $31m.

It’s many years since I’d seen either Rio Bravo or El Dorado and was motivated to catch the screening of the latter on Film4 after recently reading biographies of Robert Mitchum and John Ford (in which Wayne figured prominently). I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film, even though its sexual politics, amongst other things, is inevitably of its time. Much of the entertainment comes, of course, from the stars; no matter how execrable Wayne was as a person, he was great film star. By that I mean he perfectly embodied his persona as a self-reliant but moral man. Mitchum seemingly lazily (the biography by Lee Server confirms that Mitchum was invariably the consummate professional) just seems to be himself: the art of concealing art. He’s good at comedy, too, as shown when he’s caught having a bath virtually in public.

Mitchum plays the drunk sheriff role and I expected his alcoholism would be played purely for laughs. However, it wasn’t; the looks of disgust that Wayne’s character gives is sufficient to show how pathetic being a drunk is. I’d be interested to see Rio Bravo again and whether Dean Martin’s character is similarly treated.

Although the women are secondary, and Charlene Holt’s ‘love interest’ in Wayne (over 20 years her senior but the gap looks bigger) is rather risible, there is a nod to the ’60s in Michele Carey’s ‘tomboy’ Joey who gets to do the ‘Liberty Valence’ shot. The Mexicans, including an inevitable Pedro, are less than secondary though it is noticeable how Wayne’s character speaks Spanish to them and is always respectful.

Maybe these old school westerns aren’t as reactionary as I imagine them to be.

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