A few years ago my family and I spent our summer vacation seeing what is often referred to as “The Grand Circle.” It’s an area covering parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah that includes many of our National Parks. As we made our way up from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park in Utah, we made a brief stop in the small town of Kanab, Utah. It’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, but to fans of western movies it’s the center of the universe. Many classic movies were filmed in the surrounding area, and a small museum of leftover sets and props sits on the edge of town. Among the films made in Kanab (at least partially) is one of several collaborations between director Howard Hawks and the Duke himself…1966’s El Dorado.
John Wayne plays Cole Thornton, a gun-for-hire who turns down a job in El Dorado working for a local rancher, Bart Jason (Ed Asner), who is deep in a range war with another local ranching family. One of the deciding factors is that he doesn’t want to go against the local sheriff, J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), and old friend. He doesn’t manage to leave town fast enough, though; accidentally shooting the son of the other rancher and then later getting a slug in the back from the boy’s vengeful sister (Michele Carey).
A few months later, Cole encounters another gunslinger, Nelse McCleod (Christopher George), who has now been hired by Jason to do the job Cole turned down. Along with a young man who goes by the name Mississippi (James Caan), Cole decides to return to El Dorado to help his old friend, Sheriff Harrah. Unfortunately, Harrah has descended into a constant state of drunkenness. So it’s up to Cole and Mississippi to sober up the sheriff so he can lead the charge to stop Jason and his hired guns.
El Dorado is a superb western that tells a story of good, evil, friends, enemies, loyalty, revenge…you know, all the stuff that a western should have. There is an epic feel to the film, though the plot is actually pretty simple. A lot of credit for what makes this film work has to go to writer Leigh Brackett. Her filmography is beyond stellar; having worked on scripts for the likes of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and even The Empire Strikes Back. This script is tight with moments of extreme drama mixed with a healthy dose of humor, as well. The Duke is actually quite adept at delivering the funny lines.
This is a fantastic role for Wayne. Of course, he’s the good guy…tough, determined, loyal to his friends. He’s also a man with some demons. Early in the film he ends up with a bullet in his back that spends the rest of the movie inching its way closer to his spine. It occasionally causes paralysis in his right arm (his shooting arm), and even causes him to fall of his horse once. Though a skillful doctor could easily remedy the problem for him, he doesn’t have it removed. Almost as if it is the payment for his sins.
Wayne does steal the show, but the other players are also at the top of their games. Robert Mitchum’s role is, in many ways, more demanding than Wayne’s and he pulls it off flawlessly. The emotion Mitchum displays after Asner and his men mock him at the saloon is gut wrenching. Speaking of Asner, he makes a great villain. He comes across a bit like a cowtown godfather. And while we’re on the subject of The Godfather, James Caan, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen this young, is a real treat. Several of his scenes with Wayne are just priceless.
Really my only complaint with El Dorado is the somewhat half-baked romantic subplot involving Charlene Holt as Maudie. It feels a bit too shoehorned in. Otherwise, El Dorado is manages to be pretty much everything a western should be.