A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old--
This knight so bold--
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell, as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
--Edgar Allan Poe
When I was younger I would always get this John Wayne Western, 1966's "El Dorado," mixed up with the other two films he made with director Howard Hawks in the trilogy that also included "Rio Bravo" (1959) and "Rio Lobo" (1970). The situation was only exacerbated by Wayne's having made a Western trilogy earlier with John Ford: "Fort Apache" (1948), "She Wore an Yellow Ribbon" (1949), and "Rio Grande" (1950). Heck, I couldn't even get Howard Hawks and John Ford straight. In any case, they're all good films, so I suppose it doesn't matter.
Hawks wasn't always a maker of American Westerns, though. He only turned to the genre relatively late in his career. Some of his early films were "The Dawn Patrol" (1930), "Scarface" (1932), "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "His Girl Friday" (1940), "Sergeant York" (1941), "The Big Sleep" (1946), "Red River" (1948), "The Thing from Another World" (1951), and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953). Obviously, he was a talented filmmaker in a number of movie genres from dramas and gangster flicks to war, sci-fi, and comedies. He brought a lot of experience in different fields to bear on "El Dorado," which would be his second-to-last film.
"El Dorado" is basically a reworking of Hawks's "Rio Bravo" of seven years earlier: Same basic characters (with different names) and same basic plot. Wayne stars as Cole Thornton, a hired gunslinger. He's the same noble John Wayne character we see in almost all of Wayne's pictures, save for "The Searchers." Here, he may be a gun for hire, but he's got his principals and won't work for just anybody. When a newcomer would-be cattle baron, Bart Jason (Ed Asner), tries to hire Thornton to run off the neighboring ranchers, Thornton draws the line. Bart Jason is obviously a rascally varmint (he wears a black hat, after all), and Thornton can see in a minute he's no good.
Instead, Thornton joins forces with his old buddy Sheriff J.P. Harrah, played by Robert Mitchum. If you remember "Rio Bravo," you'll recall that movie featured two pals played by Wayne and Dean Martin, Wayne virtuous and Martin a drunk. Sheriff Harrah is a drunk. You'll also remember that there was a young hotshot kid in "Rio Bravo," a guy named "Colorado," played by Rick Nelson, who sang songs. In "El Dorado" we also have a young hotshot kid, this time named "Mississippi" and played by a youthful James Caan, who recites poetry (Poe's "Eldorado").
Furthermore, in "Rio Bravo" the two buddies, the kid, and the deputy (then played by a colorful Walter Brennan and here played by a colorful Arthur Hunnicutt) had to keep the villain locked up in jail until the Marshal came to town to take him away, while outside the villain's gang was trying to get him out. This time, the two buddies, the kid, and the deputy have to keep the villain locked up in jail until the Marshal comes to town to take him away, while outside the villain's gang is trying to get him out. "El Dorado" is not exactly a remake, just a retread. Meanwhile, in "Rio Bravo" there was a beautiful romantic interest, a card sharp played by Angie Dickinson; this time Charlene Holt plays the romantic interest, and the film never reveals her profession (but by innuendo we may infer it's the world's oldest). "Rio Bravo" is 128 minutes long, and "El Dorado" is 126 minutes; I guess by 1966 the filmmakers were getting older and couldn't manage an additional two minutes.
Nevertheless, "El Dorado" comes off as an amiable, easygoing Western, with plenty of romance and adventure in the most traditional sense, with clear-cut good guys and bad guys. However, the movie also makes it clear that in the Old West the line between "good" and "bad" was not always so easy to draw. There are strong hints that both of the heroes were outlaws at one time. I suppose the important thing is that they are good guys now. And how traditional is the movie? The opening titles play over paintings of the Western frontier, with George Alexander and the Mellomen singing the ballad of "El Dorado" in the background.
It should come as no surprise that Leigh Brackett wrote the script, which she adapted from the novel "The Stars in Their Courses" by Harry Brown (who wanted his name taken off the titles because the movie bore so little resemblance to his book). Anyway, Brackett was the screenwriter who earlier did "Rio Bravo" and a few years later would do "Rio Lobo" for Hawks and Wayne. It must have been habit by then. In all cases, the films come off as likeable and humorous, and in "El Dorado" the chemistry between the two movie legends means you can hardly take your eyes off them, no matter whether anything much is happening or not. Western fans will enjoy the movie.
The video engineers have taken what appears to be a well-preserved, 1.85:1-ratio print, cleaned it, and transferred it to disc anamorphically. The Technicolor shines through most realistically, with colors that are true though never bright or flashy. Definition is reasonably sharp for an SD disc, and black levels are more than acceptable.
Not much to say about the sound. It's Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, mostly midrange, and, of course, all center channel. Its greatest virtue is clarity of dialogue, although that comes at the expense of some naturalness: The dialogue is somewhat hard. There is a good dynamic punch, but little else.
Disc one of this two-disc "Centennial Collection" set contains the feature film and two audio commentaries. Filmmaker and film historian Peter Bogdanovich does the first commentary, and as always he's fun to listen to as he shares anecdotes with us about the director and stars. Film critic Richard Schickel does the second commentary, featuring actor Ed Asner and author Todd McCarthy. It's a little more matter-of-fact but highly informative. In addition, we get fourteen scene selections and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
Disc two contains several items, the most important of which is the seven-part featurette "Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado." It's forty-two minutes long and includes comments on Howard Hawks and the movie from actors, filmmakers, critics, and film historians. Next is the five-minute vintage featurette, "The Artist and the American West," on Olaf Wieghorst, the man who painted the opening title pictures (and played a small role in the film). Then, there's another featurette, "Behind the Gates: A.C. Lyles Remembers John Wayne," about five minutes; three galleries of lobby cards and production photos; and an original widescreen theatrical trailer.
The two discs come housed in a slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a handsome, black velvet-toned slipcover, with an informational booklet included for extra measure.
"El Dorado" is perhaps a little too derivative, a little too conventional, and a little commonplace to rank among the greatest Westerns of all time; yet there is no denying it is fun, amusing, and exciting by turns. And one can hardly resist the charisma of its stars, the affectionate guidance of its director-producer, and the reliable comfort of its supporting cast. Let's say it's a Western no fan of Westerns will want to miss, and leave it at that.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow--
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be--
This land of Eldorado?"
"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,"
The shade replied--
"If you seek for Eldorado."