I'm not the biggest fan of Westerns; in fact the last Western I really, truly loved was The Proposition, which was penned by Nick Cave - yes, that Nick Cave - and it was much more highly stylized than the "classic" Westerns we are familiar with. With El Dorado, Howard Hawks carries out a film that is more along the lines of a traditional Western, and makes it appealing even to a lukewarm Western fan like myself.
El Dorado stars cinematic legends John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, with Wayne exuding cool as effortlessly and nonchalantly as Michael Pitt does creepiness. The two play old friends Cole and J.P, the former being a well-known gunslinger and the latter being the sheriff of the eponymous town. The film begins with Cole stopping by El Dorado for a brief reunion before heading to a ranch to help a man named Bart Jason (Ed Asner) win a range war with a neighboring family. While visiting J.P, Cole learns that the job is riskier than he initially expected, and that he may eventually be forced to face his sheriff friend in battle. This makes the job infinitely less appealing to Cole, and he decides to quit working for Bart - but not before sustaining a spinal wound through a brief series of accidents and misunderstandings. The doctor is unable to remove the bullet, and paralysis gradually takes hold of Cole's right side throughout the rest of the film. Months later, he returns to El Dorado with his new friend Mississippi (James Caan) in tow to help sober up J.P, who has become an alcoholic. From there they get involved with some outlaws, as well as Bart's family, and everybody shoots the crap out of each other.
This is an early role of Caan's, and he's just about perfect. But the driving force behind the film is clearly Wayne. His performance makes clear exactly why he is so thoroughly cemented within the collective cultural almanac of Americana; he is stoic and cool under pressure, and his actions seem righteous and moral even though all he's doing is going around and killing people. Maybe he just has one of those noble faces. Mitchum plays the incompetent sidekick to Wayne's superhero for the majority of the film, but when he finally manages to get sober and regain his posture, he becomes as formidable a hero as Wayne.
All that said, the movie does run a little long; believe me, I have nothing against long movies, but it just feels as though Hawks could have trimmed the fat a little. The scenes featuring Cole and Mississippi nursing J.P. back to sobriety could have definitely been cut down a little. Also, I personally would have preferred a little less dialogue and a little more action, especially in the first half, but it does pick up wonderfully.
I was surprised by how genuinely funny it was at times. (Robert Mitchum's bathtub scene comes to mind). And they actually manage to pull of some decent slapstick! Not easy to do. Technically, the film is downright fantastic, save for one particularly laughable jump cut involving James Caan and some cowboys on horseback - I won't ruin it for you since it is a great scene. And the fact that I'm splitting hairs by commenting on a single cut proves just how seamless this film actually looks.
DVD Bonus Features
The first disc features the film with commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, as well as a separate commentary by film historian and critic Richard Schinckel, actor Ed Asner, and the author of a Howard Hawks biography, Todd McCarthy. The highlight of the extras is a comprehensive featurette entitled "Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado," and it is a comprehensive profile of director Howard Hawks, a detailed account of the history leading up to the making of the film, and the actors as well.
The story is told through various narrations and interviews with film historians and producers familiar with the director; Bogdanovich, Schinckel, Asner, and McCarthy are all interviewed. There's another vintage featurette, and a sort of dedication by A.C. Lyles to John Wayne. There are also a couple of uninteresting photo galleries and a theatrical trailer.
"El Dorado: The Centennial Collection" is on sale May 19, 2009 and is rated NR. Action, Adventure, Western. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Harry Brown (novel) ; Leigh Brackett (screenplay). Starring Charlene Holt, James Caan, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum.