El Dorado Movie Review
John Wayne plays Cole Thornton, a gun for hire claiming a job with a land-grabbing cattle baron (Ed Asner). Cole accepts the job until he finds out that his old pal J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum, in one of his finest late career performances) is the town sheriff. Cole switches sides but not before being shot by a put-upon rancher's daughter, Joey (Michele Carey), who thinks Cole is still working for Jason. With the bullet lodged near his spine, Cole rejects a risky operation and leaves town looking for work. A year later, Cole returns to town with a young, firebrand partner, Mississippi (James Caan), in tow to find that Jason has hired a legendary gang of gunslingers to force Joey's family off their ranch. Cole also discovers J.P. has deteriorated into a pathetic joke of a drunk after being thrown over by a dame (and Mitchum is not short of harrowing in his efforts to fight back his demons). But Jason's hired guns won't quit, so Cole along with Mississippi and J.P.'s obnoxious deputy Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt) try to head off the gang of hired guns. At the same time, Cole helps J.P. to pull out of his drunken stupor and regain his professionalism.
As in Hawks's previous films, there is a marked emphasis on experience and talent in order to "get the job done." But in El Dorado another aspect of professionalism is called into question: What does it mean to be a professional when you discover that you are growing old and your powers are waning? Infirmity, disability, aging -- these are Hawks's obsessions in El Dorado.
Mitchum brackets the film with remarks encapsulating these concerns. At the film's opening, he greets the paunchy Wayne with a rifle pointed at him. When Wayne gets ready to draw his gun, Mitchum says, "I just wanted to see if you slowed down." Towards the end of the film, Mitchum tries to reassure a paralyzed Wayne by telling him, "Last night your whole side was dead. Now it's just your arm." Hawks plays through these interests in a series of lighthearted and stoic verbal exchanges between Wayne and Mitchum that leave the not-so-old Rio Bravo plot in the lurch.
Hawks, 70 at the time of El Dorado's filming, accentuates aspects of Rio Bravo that were brushed off in the wake of that film's taut atmosphere, pointing to the importance of friendship and loyalty in the wake of age. In order to cover these themes on an elemental level, El Dorado is much looser and relaxed, expanding upon the characters and slackening the tale like a fat man loosening his gun belt. Rather that the dark and foreboding opening of Rio Bravo with Dean Martin skulking through dark streets in search of a drink, El Dorado starts out in the brilliant noon sun and only proceeds into darkness and confinement as the film progresses. And as the darkness closes in, the characters talk and form bonds of friendship and loyalty, which is sorely needed when you have aging characters who collapse into paralysis or shriek with the DTs.
Even the young whippersnappers get in on the act. James Caan's Edgar Allen Poe-quoting Mississippi agrees to hang around and help Cole and J.P. by remarking, "Maybe I could help you. You saved my life twice." To which Wayne replies, "Yeah, but I'll be too busy to keep doing that!"
But the film is so entertaining and unfettered that it is not until it is over and after the final shot of Wayne and Mitchum limping their way down Main Street that the realization kicks in that Hawks is dealing in a stark and unblinking way at physical deterioration and morality, and you begin to visualize yourself heading "over the mountains of the moon" and "down the valley of shadow" -- to quote Poe and Caan.