El Dorado was John Wayne’s 138th film, and was released about the same time as The War Wagon. While critics were split on the film, El Dorado was a hit with fans and earned a profit at the box office. It is my favorite John Wayne film.
If you are looking for a hip, ground-breaking Western, an original story, rooted in authenticity – keep looking. In many ways, this is storytelling by the numbers, designed for Wayne’s audience, not for the critics. This wasn’t Stagecoach, Red River or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a few of Wayne’s epic Westerns. The 1960’s spawned some very diversely-themed films that mirrored the changing time: Cat Ballou, Hang ‘Em High, Ride the High Country, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Wild Bunch.
Wayne spent most of the 1960’s enjoying the career he had spent three decades building. Mostly, his films were crowd-pleasing, generally lightly dramatic, and built around his personality. Occasionally, he detoured into vanity projects (The Alamo, The Green Berets), or hired himself out in big, ensemble projects (In Harm’s Way, How the West Was Won) but mostly, you got a popular variation of the John Wayne character. True Grit (1969) would be a departure.
El Dorado is accepted as an updated remake of Rio Bravo, a film Wayne and director Howard Hawks had made in 1957. Technically, El Dorado is based on the novel, “The Stars in their Courses” by Harry Brown, and a screenplay by Leigh Brackett, a frequent collaborator with Wayne. Brackett also co-wrote the screenplay to Rio Bravo. While Hawks denied similarities between the films, the parallels are obvious to the viewer, or at least this viewer. Is that a bad thing? No. Each film stands on its own.
I commented that El Dorado is storytelling by the numbers, which is okay if the crafters are Brackett, Hawks and Wayne. The film is built around strong, interesting characters who go through a series of challenges that keep the viewer tied to the story. Given the similarities to Rio Bravo, the element of suspense is low, but viewer’s engagement remains high. Hawks, was in his fifth decade of film-making, so he had a lot of tricks to pull from his bag. The film plays as a series of vignettes tied together with a rather basic storyline.
The film owes its strength to Hawk’s direction and the top-notch cast that Wayne and Hawks assembled. Give Wayne credit, he typically surrounded himself with fine actors, many of which were frequent collaborators. Wayne was not afraid to share the screen with actors like James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson, Lee Marvin, Richard Boone and Maureen O’Hara.
In El Dorado, Robert Mitchum has the character similar to the one that Dean Martin played in Rio Bravo. Wayne reported wanted the role, but Hawks convinced him to play the other lead. Mitchum didn’t want to play it as Martin did, he intentionally increased the comedy element. Perhaps that’s why Wayne wanted to play that character, as Mitchum stole most of the scenes he was in.
Supporting characters include the crusty Arthur Hunnicutt, Edward Asner, Christopher George, R.G. Armstrong, James Caan, Jim Davis, Paul Fix and Michele Carey. Wayne often employed the same actors in his films. Davis and Fix, veteran character actors, had appearances in several Wayne films.
So, what exactly is El Dorado? The town where the film takes place is called El Dorado, but the real Texas city with that name did not exist at the time the film takes place. The title of the film is more about the concept of a journey through dark forces in search for something unrealized.
In the film, one of the characters recites parts of a poem called “El Dorado”, which was published in 1849 by Edgar Allan Poe. A gallant knight is searching for El Dorado and travels through the valley of the shadow, “ride boldly ride”. Do they find El Dorado? Certainly not in riches but perhaps that wasn’t their journey. In the end, Wayne and his compatriots stop the big rancher and his gunslinger from taking over the area’s water rights, removing the shadow of the threat.
There are lots of interesting trivia about the film, one of which involves the paintings in the film’s opening credits. The Western-themed paintings were done by Olaf Wieghorst, who played the gunsmith, “The Swede”. Wieghorst was a well-known Western artist.