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"Story? There's no story. You and Duke play two old cowboys." That's what Howard Hawks told Robert Mitchum when he invited the star to act in his new movie, El Dorado (1966). "He was right," Mitchum later recalled. "It was all character development." Hawks later said that there was actually a "pretty good plot in El Dorado, even though it wanders around [and] isn't as condensed...You can let a thing wander around."
There's a scene in the movie in which a man does not know how to use a gun. Hawks plays it for comedy. It's typical of his view of the world - in a Hawks picture, characters are accepted when they prove they are good enough to do something, be it knowing how to shoot, fly a plane, or get the scoop for their newspaper. Professionalism is more important even than morality. This is why Hawks hated High Noon (1952), in which a sheriff is so scared of facing the bad guys alone that he spends the entire movie trying to get help, only to find that everyone else is even more frightened than he. Hawks thought that story reprehensible, and as a direct response he made Rio Bravo (1959), in which a sheriff (John Wayne) constantly turns down offers of help. El Dorado is similar enough to Rio Bravo as to be almost a remake, though Hawks denied that notion.
The two films are actually so similar in their surface details that they reveal an interesting evolution taking place in Hollywood. In 1959, the old studio system was still functioning; by 1966, it had broken down but nothing else had yet really taken its place. Rio Bravo, then, has the gloss and feel of a typical studio western, while El Dorado is something quite different - rambling, interior, talky, less smooth and more psychologically complex. One can even see a reflection of the changed American society in that time frame, from something more traditional to something more unsettled. (Hawks' Rio Lobo  is still further abstracted, reflecting the increased turmoil taking place in Hollywood and America.)
Like Rio Bravo, El Dorado was written by Leigh Brackett, a favorite screenwriter of Hawks'. (She wrote or co-wrote five of his movies.) The director later told author Joseph McBride, for his book Hawks on Hawks, "I bought a story [the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown] that was a Greek tragedy, where everybody got killed. Leigh Brackett and I finished the first script. I read it and said, 'Hey, this is going to be one of the worst pictures I've ever made. I'm no good at this downbeat stuff.' She said, 'What do we do?' I said, 'Well, let's write a new one.' So we decided to keep one scene...where Wayne shot the boy [Johnny Crawford] on top of the rock. One of the reasons we did it was because we felt that would start the picture off as a tragedy, and then we could turn it into fun...The author of the book...was very angry because he said he thought it was a bunch of junk."
Hawks continued, "I'm much more interested in the story of a friendship between two men than I am about a range war or something like that. There's probably no stronger emotion than friendship between men. When it comes to Wayne and his relationships, that's better than the story... Any time you get somebody who's as good as Wayne and Mitchum, you're going to make better scenes than there are in the script."
Hawks never told James Caan that his part of an inept gunman was a comic role: "It was Caan's first good part, and he accepted anything I'd tell him without any argument. He's a damn good actor, and we started rolling the more we got into it. He got a lot of laughs playing it perfectly serious. He didn't know he was playing a comedy. Not until he went to see the preview. He came up to me and said, 'Why didn't you tell me I was playing a comic part?' And I said, 'You'd have spoiled it. You'd have tried to be funny.'"
El Dorado is shot in Hawks' deceptively simple style, with the camera usually at eye level, but there are some exceptions. As Hawks explained, "People ask me why I had the shot in El Dorado of the man falling into the camera. Well, they don't know that I didn't have any set to work with; I had to do it that way." Hawks also shot a scene where Mitchum sings, but he cut it from the final print because Hawks' son saw it and said, "Dad, a sheriff shouldn't sing."
19-year-old Johnny Crawford, a former child star most famous for his role on television's The Rifleman, spent two weeks on El Dorado's Tucson location in October 1965. He found Hawks to be "a gentleman, very professional, a real class act." Many times, Crawford recalled, Hawks "didn't like the sky," which meant a lot of delays while waiting for the weather to change. John Wayne "wanted to go over the lines a lot, and he apologized profusely when he blew them several times." In their big scene together, Crawford noticed that Wayne was audibly out of breath when climbing up the rock where Crawford has fallen after being shot by Wayne. He'd recently had a lung removed but was still giving his all. As for Mitchum, "he was a real down-to-earth friendly guy" who "came on set when he wasn't needed, just to hang out."
Crawford's best memory, however, involves a souvenir he keeps to this day. Getting ready to shoot a scene where he herds some horses through a stream, Crawford found himself disappointed that he didn't have any chaps to wear. Chuck Roberson, a famed, longtime stuntman who was working on the picture, "offered to let me wear his beautiful, authentic, 'batwing' chaps." As he handed them over, Roberson mentioned that John Wayne himself had worn them in Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956).
"Well, I wore those chaps every day for two weeks and 'died' in them. We became very attached. When my two weeks on the movie ended, I went to hand them back to Chuck. Looking at them with a slight smile, he said they were getting pretty old, and that I should just keep them as a souvenir. So I did, and now they're much older than they were then, and they still look real good to me."
Producer: Howard Hawks, Paul Helmick
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Harry Brown (novel), Leigh Brackett
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: John Woodcock
Art Direction: Carl Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Nelson Riddle
Cast: John Wayne (Cole Thornton), Robert Mitchum (Sheriff J.P. Harrah), James Caan (Alan Bourdillion Traherne), Charlene Holt (Maudie), Paul Fix (Dr. Miller), Arthur Hunnicutt (Bull Harris).
C-126m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold