El Dorado (1966 )

Directed by Howard Hawks
Cinematography Harold Rosson

El Dorado is a 1966 American Western film produced and directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Written by Leigh Brackett and loosely based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, the film is about a gunfighter who comes to the aid of an old friend—a drunken sheriff struggling to defend a rancher and his family against another rancher trying to steal their water. The gunfighter and drunken sheriff are helped by an aging Indian fighter and a young gambler. The supporting cast features James Caan as the young gambler, Charlene Holt, Ed Asner, Paul Fix, Arthur Hunnicutt, Michele Carey, and Christopher George.


Sumptuous Filming; Many Good Characters; Superior Western

20 June 2005 | by silverscreen888See all my reviews

This many not be the best western ever made, but it looks like an epic and is more fun than most movies by a hoot and a holler. It’s got direction by Howard Hawks, characters, and people who actually talk to each other in intelligent dialogue and have to think, all set in a beautiful Western locale. John Wayne ably plays a man who has faces several challenges, in this fine screenplay by Leigh Brackett (of “The Big Sleep” and “Rio Bravo” fame). The challenges have to do with helping his hard-drinking friend, the Sheriff played by Robert Mitchum, combating a gang of badmen headed by powerful Edward Asner, and the fact that he’s been shot in the back by mistake and that the pain causes him to be unable to move at inconvenient times.


The production has a fine title sung by the great Ed Ames, titles by noted western artist Olaf Weighorst (who also appears as a gunsmith),; and its technical production is truly outstanding in every department Other actors contributing to this near-masterpiece of entertaining film-making include Arthur Hunnicutt, R.G. Armstrong, Christopher George and Charlene Holt in her best screen role ever. Outstanding contributions were made by Nellie Manley and Wally Westmore on hair and makeup, Edith Head on costumes and many others. Altogether a very-satisfying, adult and physically beautiful color western; writer Brackett was asked by Wayne to include the saloon scene from “Rio Bravo” in a rewritten version, and it works just as well here; the major change is James Caan as Alan Trehearne, plus the change of cast to Mitchum, Hunnicxuut and Holt, who are all very good indeed.


Crushingly wonderful (slight spoilers)

Author: mmmopens from Belfast, Northern Ireland
5 October 2003
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As someone who has run a cultural cinema for over thirty years and programmed thousands of great films from the whole history of the cinema from Lumiere Bros forwards, I am often asked what I regard as the greatest film ever made. El Dorado is NOT the greatest film ever made (though it deserves consideration), but it IS my favourite of the thousands and thousands of films that I have seen.

Why is this?

Firstly, it is heroic. It announces this in the credit sequence of Olag Wieghorst’s paintings of the old west, and delivers throughout its length right up to the final adrenalin gushing walk of the two old and failing gunfighters along the street in a town that they have made fit to live in.


Secondly, it is sensationally subtle in its mise en scene. Look at the scene where the crippled Cole Thornton is exchanged for Bart Jason. After the exchange has been made, Cole is seen on the right hand side of the screen lit in warm hues by the table lamp. JP and Bull, who made the exchange, on the other hand are coolly lit (cool meaning not hot, please) by the greenish oil lamp. I cannot think of a more subtle use of lighting to express emotional relationships in all cinema.


Camera and character movement within the frame are also brought to a new high. Look at the shot when Bull announces that Cole is leaving. It follows naturally from his (Bull’s) spectacular entrance and results in a two-shot with Maudie whom we know loves Cole… then Bull, having, unknowingly, dropped the bombshell of Cole’s departure moves out of frame to the right and the camera moves just far enough to put Maudie centre frame as we see the pain that the news gives her…

Thirdly, it integrates its humour throughout the long and complex drama. Structurally the use of Bull and Mississippi as foils for JP and Cole is a complete masterstroke.


Finally it is one of the most emotionally satisfying films I can remember. I weep in the closing moments every time I see it because I realise that I am about to lose these wonderful, wonderful characters who have transported me into a kind of heaven for the past two hours.

So who do we mainly thank for this most magnificent film?

I really must read Harry Brown’s novel from which the screenplay was adapted… but I do know that as far as I am concerned Leigh Brackett is the greatest female script-writer – indeed greatest female film artist behind the camera – and not just because of this work. And when she worked with Howard Hawks glory almost invariably followed.

I’ve already mentioned Olaf Wieghorst’s paintings, which are also monumentalised by the title song – praise be to Nelson Riddle and John Gabriel (who plays Pedro) – which I would feel honoured to have played at my funeral.


Then there is the small matter of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum – two towering stars who had by then become great actors, and magnificently naturalistic cinematography by Harold Rosson whose career spanned to almost 150 films as cinematographer with credits including Docks of New York, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and this, his last film, into which he put all of his love and artistry.

Which brings us to Howard Hawks, the most unpretentious artist of the cinema, and one of its greatest. I know this film is a kind of remake of Rio Bravo, and he went on to do it again with Rio Lobo, but for me, this is his last full work – his health was failing on the shoot of Rio Lobo. There is something special in the last works of (some)truly great directors … look at Gertrud, or Family Plot, or The Dead. It as though they are saying to us… ‘OK… I’d like to do it over a dozen or so films, but I’m going to show you the real cinema in just one, because I might not get another chance….’ So just the same as in Family Plot were Hitchcock’s generosity and artistry come together in the biggest slice of cake he ever delivered, here Hawks gives us a kind of sublime perfection of cinematic structure and expression.

One film to a desert island?   This is it.


There is some deliberate burlesque in Hawks’ “El Dorado.”

Author: Righty-Sock (robertfrangie@hotmail.com) from Mexico
11 November 2007

In the Broken Saloon at El Dorado, two old friends, each with a reputation, meet again… But Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) greets Cole Thornton (John Wayne) with a pointed rifle… Harrah has heard his friend works now for Bart Jason (Edward Asner). Thornton admits Jason offered him good money but he doesn’t know what he has to do to earn it…

Harrah explains that Jason showed up here around the end of the war with a pocketful of money and nobody could find out where he got it, but everybody else around here was broke… Having money, he started to grow… But now he needs more water… There’s only one place to get it… Trouble is somebody was there ahead of him, about 20 years ahead… His name is Kevin MacDonald (R. G. Armstrong).


MacDonald got four boys and a girl… All worked real hard… They hung together through the rough times and how things were looking up, MacDonald was not ready to sell… So he’s holding and Jason was pushing, and the sheriff was standing right in the middle…

Warned that Thornton has gone to Jason’s, MacDonald has left his youngest boy out there to do a man’s job… He went to sleep… When Cole came by, Luke (Johnny Crawford) woke up, jumped up and started firing his gun… All Cole was seeing was somebody shooting at him from the rocks… Thornton, thinking himself the target, shoots and drops the boy … Luke explains the error then… To escape the pain of his mortal wound, he kills himself…


Thornton takes his body to his fathers’ place, and after he explains what happened, his sister, Joey (Michele Carey), a wild cat in buckskin pants who didn’t believe him, tried to kill him… Her brother stops her and her father asks her to get in the house…

After Thornton leaves the ranch, Joey (Michele Carey) ambushes Cole at a creek, dropping him with her riffle bullet… He manages to get back on his horse and escapes to Maudie’s place, where Doc Miller (Paul Fix) treats him… The bullet was dangerous up against his spine, however, as Doc advises him to find a better surgeon for the bullet’s removal…

After a short time, Thornton leaves El Dorado…


One of the best moments in the film came in a Cantina near the Mexican border when James Caan (Mississippi) enters the place and calls one of four men sitting at a dinner table, reminding him if he remembers him or if he remembers the blue hat he is wearing? Mississippi says he caught up with his other three companions and he killed them all, and that he was the last of the four… He asks him to stand up… and as the audience observed, Mississippi wasn’t wearing, at all, any gun…

Obviously, when Jason just brought his outfit into town, the action started…

Robert Mitchum is ‘the tin star with a drunk pinned on it.’ He was too mad to be scared and too sick to worry about it..


Charlene Holt plays Maudie the gambler’s widow who throws her arms around Cole, sees Harrah, and bursts out laughing when she finds her old flame and her current one are friends… She tells the sheriff that Cole gave her a stake, and helped her get on her feet…

Michele Carey plays Joey, the wild girl who thinks that Mississippi looks a lot better without that silly hat…

Christopher George plays Nelse McLeod, a dark, thin-faced man with a scar on his eye…

“El Dorado” was the third of four Westerns that Howard Hawks made with John Wayne… Hawks’ massive reputation as a director of Westerns virtually rests on just two films (“Red River” & “Rio Bravo”) but these two are sufficient to reveal a highly skilled, intuitive filmmaker, and one who has managed to satisfy large audiences and serious critics alike within a commercial system…



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