Vic’s Classics – “El Dorado” (1966) Review


What’s it About?

Cole Thornton, a gunfighter for hire, joins forces with an old friend, Sheriff J.P. Hara. Together with an old Indian fighter and a gambler, they help a rancher and his family fight a rival rancher that is trying to steal their water.

“El Dorado”

Directed by Howard Hawks

8 out of 10

By Vic

Director Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday and Rio Bravo) brings us a very  entertaining western that is almost a play by play re-telling of Rio Bravo. It sports an incredible cast that consists of John Wayne as gunslinger Cole Thornton, Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear) as the drunkard Sheriff J P Harrah and James Caan (Thief, The Godfather) as the youthful and impetuous, knife wielder “Mississippi.”  The main trio all band together to help a rancher family in trying to prevent a real jerk off named Bart Jason (Ed Asner) from stealing and diverting their water. Earlier, Cole, at the behest of his friend Sheriff Harrah, declines Jason’s request for employment.

Then, Cole, in self defense shoots and kills a rancher’s son (played by RG Armstrong) and when he returns his body to him his sibling Joey (Michelle Carey) in return shoots Cole and lands a round right into his spine. He eventually lets her go her own way since he feels that she isn’t a threat but he still has that damn bullet in his back. After some time and after leaving Harrah quite capable and sober, Cole meets up with the young scene stealing James Caan as he also tries to get revenge on a Bart Jason baddie who killed a close friend of his.

Jason’s new go to guy is a bad dude named McLeod (played by Christopher George) and he lets Cole know that Harrah is in rough shape and has become a laughing stock and quite a drunk. It appears that a love affair gone wrong has affected him deeply. After some relentless begging, Mississippi accompanies Cole back to El Dorado convincing Cole that he can be of some use especially with a knife.

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After they leave McLeod and the others behind they head back to town to help Harrah out. And as they try, a confrontation between the MacDonald’s, Bart Jason and his guy McLeod and Cole is imminent. Cole tries his best to sober Harrah up before Jason can get to town and get away with overpowering the MacDonald’s water supply. The story gets more dynamic and a bit more complex when we get kidnappings, an incapacitated Cole, brothels, double twists and eventually Bart Jason gets holed up in prison waiting for his goons to show up. “El Dorado” is unique, fun and very well written.

I must give a lot of the credit to writer Leigh Brackett (The Empire Strikes Back) for giving us an intricate and deliberate western that became a worthy template for many more westerns to come. It is Robert Mitchum though as Sheriff Harrah that is the one to watch here. Where Caan at times steals some scenes even from Wayne himself, it’s Mitchum that holds this movie together with a great portrayal. Harrah is slovenly, shaky, incoherent and always angry. He seems to always be in a perpetual hangover and his gun skills are quite sucky.

In one great scene, Caan concocts a remedy for Harrah’s drunken state that involves gun powder. After Mitchum drinks it, he goes ballistic and gets even sicker.  Wayne and Mitchum have an incredible chemistry here and the supporting cast including the very pretty Charlene Holt as Maudie is spot on. Wayne swaggers, yells and moves…well like John Wayne. He IS Cole and when he is trying to keep Mississippi in control or trying to keep Harrah sober he always has his game on. Except in one sequence where he’s almost shot and killed because of his back injury. He never even tries to acknowledge the Doctor that is trying to help him out. Ed Asner as Bart Jason is menacing, oily and slithery. He knocks it out of the park.

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Without spoiling the rest I can assure you that “El Dorado” delivers. Mitchum steps up, Cole and Mississippi help Joey and the MacDonald’s and Bart and McLeod all square off with the help of Harrah’s elderly cohort Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt). It beautifully shot by Harold Rosson and the costumes by Edith Head are sumptuous and gritty. Nelson Riddle (Star Trek) supplies the wondrous score that is appealing and exciting.

The title song is sung by Ed Ames. Caan as “Alan Trehearne” is quite magnificent to watch especially opposite John Wayne. Everyone here is right on target in this rousing and interesting character study that also happens to be a fine western from Hawks. Mitchum is in top form and his portrayal leaves nothing lacking. Prepare yourself for an awesome throw back western in the grandest of style and grit. “El Dorado” delivers the goods and you don’t have to be a huge western fan to enjoy the incredible story and performances. Enjoy! Highly recommended.

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    • It is! I had a blast re-watching it recently. It was on Netflix and I couldn’t pass it up. Thanks for stopping by!

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