Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado” should not be dismissed as a remake of “Rio Bravo.” Regardless of both the lifts and variations on the earlier picture, the director’s penultimate film stands on its own as one of the last major works of classical Western cinema. It is nowhere near the masterpiece that is “Rio Bravo,” nor is it meant to be. “El Dorado” is a looser film, more playful, if not in content than in form. 1959’s “Rio Bravo” was a perfectly orchestrated human fugue, every line of dialog conceived and delivered with tonal and rhythmic exactness. In comparison, the line readings of 1966’s “El Dorado” are so rough that they almost sound improvised.
We are fifty minutes into “El Dorado” before the first references to “Rio Bravo” appear. By this point, it has already established itself as its own film. Where the whole of “Rio Bravo” took place on limited sets in one small town, “El Dorado” moves through the traditional settings of the outdoor Western. The use of variable height measures such as hills, rocks, and rivers gives Hawks the physical means to shoot from different angles without drawing a Hitchcockian attention to them. When Michele Carey takes a shot at John Wayne who rides below the rocks upon which she sits, the high angled camera seems more natural than does Rio Bravo’s low angled shot of Dean Martin on the ground floor of a saloon shooting a man on a balcony.
The major characters are variations on the characters of “Rio Bravo,” with a sly reversal on the Dean Martin character, now played by Robert Mitchum. This time the drunkard is the sheriff, and John Wayne’s sober hero a gunfighter. Ricky Nelson’s fast-drawing Colorado is now Mississippi, a knife throwing comic figure who doesn’t know how to use a gun. Sam Peckinpah may well have drawn his Alias character of “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid” from James Caan’s Colorado. Both are ambiguous figures who throw knives and wear funny hats. Arthur Hunnicutt’s Bull resurrects Walter Brennan’s Stumpy, but without the personality of the older actor. Hunnicutt plays the part as Morgan Freeman might have conceived it, with a deeply measured dollop of folk wisdom replacing Brennan’ manic unpredictability. Finally, Charlene Holt, as Wayne’s and Mitchum’s shared romantic interest, is no match for Angie Dickenson. She can’t even compete with Michele Carey, the secondary female lead. As a result, most of the comic element of John Wayne’s awkward romantic moves is missing, or at least upstaged by Mississippi’s interest in Carey’s Joey.
But to complain about what we miss from “Rio Bravo” is to pass over what is special about “El Dorado.” Dean Martin has his own special charm, but his characterization as Dude the Drunk was pretty thin, and didn’t give Wayne much to play against. With Mitchum, Wayne really loosens up and comes to life. With the negligible exception of “The Longest Day,” this is the only time these two larger than life actors worked together, and it is terrific fun to watch them. That, and the opening up of the “Rio Bravo” setting to include the surrounding country, goes a long way toward making ‘El Dorado” an essential Western, despite the fact that “Rio Bravo” is about twenty times better.