[dir. Howard Hawks; scr. Leigh Brackett]
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?”
“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied—
“If you seek for Eldorado!”
—Edgar Allan Poe, “Eldorado,” 1849
Made in 1966, El Dorado‘s release was pushed back to make way for another Paramount western, Nevada Smith, and so didn’t play in American theatres till 1967, fifty years ago today. As much as the film is about a greedy rancher, and a revengeful girl, and their two range-warring families, and the gunmen and lawmen caught in the middle, and the gambler’s widow caught between a gunman and a lawman, as much as it is about the Old West, or reveries thereon, it is about the people who made it, and the passing of time.
Half a century later, El Dorado remains an impressive, engrossing piece of storytelling, and a deft examination of some typical Western preoccupations, being not so much a repetition of Hawks’ previous films as variations on a theme. As always, every department of production emphasises Hawks’ values – professionalism, friendship, self-respect – but these are now set alongside the tribulations of aging: a journey through sunshine and shadow. It could reasonably be classed as a Post-Heyday narrative, and if it is not quite an Old Age Western, then perhaps it is, at least, a middle-aged one.
The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again
There is no person more associated with Westerns than John Wayne. At one point, Howard Hawks had talked to Cary Grant about making a Western where Grant would play a consumptive dentist. “But it wouldn’t be quite the same as if Wayne did it,” said Hawks. “If Duke heard I was going to do a western without him, he’d call up and say, “Can’t you write me in?””[i] For El Dorado, he didn’t need to.
Hawks said, “Do you want to make a couple of westerns?”
Wayne said, “Damn right.”[ii]
Then they made them.
El Dorado’s reputation, by and large, is as a derivative remake of Howard Hawks’ own Rio Bravo (1959).[iii] One could say, though, that it is derivative only because it came second. El Dorado began as an adaptation of poet, novelist, and Oscar-winning screenwriter (for A Place in the Sun) Harry Brown’s book, The Stars in Their Courses. The novel was adapted by Hawks regular Leigh Brackett, whose last (posthumous) credit would be for The Empire Strikes Back. In the forties, Hawks was working on the movie of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. He’d read a mystery novel written by a guy called Brackett, and liked the dialogue. Hawks hired the writer through an agent. But when the guy turned up, he turned out to be no guy. “I thought I was hiring a man,” Hawks admitted.[iv] He was the innocent mark – played for a fool, like a Humphrey Bogart PI, by a dame. Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner took alternate chapters of Chandler’s book, and completed a script in eight days. Hawks and Brackett worked together many times over the years, and the director had, ahem, high praise for her eventual work on El Dorado: “She wrote that like a man. She writes good.”[v]
Brackett’s original screenplay was much closer to the source material, which one critic has called “a solemn, pietistic bloodbath,” with little plot, no characters, and an overriding “small-minded conception of fate”.[vi] (Don’t sugar-coat it, doc!) For Brackett, the real bloodbath was behind the scenes:
I wrote the best script I have ever written and Howard liked it, the studio liked it, Wayne liked it, and I was delighted. We didn’t make it, because he decided to go back and do Rio Bravo over again. It could have been called The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again. I wasn’t happy, but I did the best I could to make it a little different. Amazingly enough, very few people, except film buffs, caught the resemblance. I thought, my god! The critics will clobber us, because we did this before, practically word for word.[vii]
Why did Hawks decide to “do Rio Bravo over again”? Well, he read the Greek tragedy 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.”[viii] So Hawks and Brackett wrote a new story instead. For “new,” feel free to read “old” – albeit differently told.
The Con is On
In an interview, Robert Mitchum, who plays El Dorado’s drunken sheriff J.P. Harrah, recounted how he joined the production:
Howard said [slow, sonorous Hawks imitation], “Bo-h-h-b, how about a Western with Duke Wayne?” I said, “Fine. Sounds great. Where are you going to shoot it?” He said, “I thought we’d do it in Old Tucson.” I said, “Good—I like that, too. What’s the story?” “Oh, no story, Bob. Just character. Stories bore people. No story, just character.” I said, “OK,” and that was it, too…[ix]
That there is no story, or not much of one, is a common, erroneous criticism of the film. The narrative is simply more sprawling than Rio Bravo. It develops out of the strong, individual characters Hawks and Brackett admired, the potent initial situation, and the one remnant of Harry Brown’s novel: Cole Thornton (John Wayne) shooting the MacDonald kid.
The relationship between Rio Bravo and El Dorado is comparable to that between Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve. (Harry Brown, incidentally, is credited as a writer on the original Rat Pack version.) The first movie in the series is a tightly constructed story with an immediate start, a group of likeable characters – all professionals – and a clear narrative direction. It is a classic of its genre. The second instalment takes a little longer to reacquaint us with familiar surroundings. Everyone is a little more relaxed, and we’re a little more laidback too, enjoying their company. The young guy, who proved himself in the first one, is now able to be made fun of (affectionately) like all the other heroes. The action comes in interestingly arranged chapters that gradually gain meaning. Certain elements are repeated from the first instalment, while other tropes central to the genre are subverted. Although there exists a code of honour between professionals, the characters are aware that, should they play fair, they would inevitably be outclassed. Besides, they were always cheats, anyway – and they’re not getting any younger…
“Do I look fifty to you?” asks George Clooney.
“Yeah,” says Don Cheadle.
“Well, I mean, you know, only from the neck up.”
In Rio Bravo, Ricky Nelson was a great gunman; in El Dorado, the kid can’t shoot. The drunk is now the sheriff and John Wayne the gunfighter. El Dorado zigs where Rio Bravo zagged. Hawks wasn’t just repeating himself:
There are always two ways to go, you can go any which way, and we knew that both ways were good. We just turned the whole thing around. We did everything by opposites. I don’t think there’s anything you can do except opposites. I don’t think there’s any connection between the two stories. I’ve heard people say so, but I don’t think they’ve seen both of them. There is a similarity, but it comes from style, it comes from writing, it comes from the fact that it’s made in the same part of the country, because the costumes are very much the same. We found people liked it, and so we didn’t mind it a bit.[x]
Consider, too, the situation of the Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back. Second time around, we’re trying to perfect the formula, creating new symmetries. Sometimes making things neater, sometimes opening things out. Indeed, Hawks may have lied to Robert Mitchum; he had a story:
Pretty good plot in El Dorado, even though it wanders around, it isn’t as condensed. I couldn’t do Rio Bravo again, you know what I mean? You had to hunt up something new. You can let a thing wander around.[xi]
Brackett’s artfully accomplished task was to, as Hawks put it, hook everything in the story together. The strong causal plot development actually means that El Dorado retains something of that sense of fate present in The Stars in Their Courses. There is a tension between the agency of the individual and fate, between life and death, light and shadow.
A Thing Wanders Around
El Dorado opens with a wistful, quixotic ballad – the movie’s musical identity – inspired by the Poe poem. This is played over opening credits featuring paintings of the Old West by Olaf Wieghorst (who cameos as the old gunsmith, The Swede). The song is still being sung as we fade in to a long shot placing J.P. Harrah in the town, walking away from the camera. We are not told the date – we are in Western-time, not real time, on the same plane of existence as those beautiful paintings. When we first come across Wayne, we cannot see his face, just his huge frame, bent over. He’s referring to Mitchum, but Wayne’s first line is also our reaction to the man stooped over the washbasin: “That’s a voice I’d know anywhere.” He gets the soap out of his eyes, and we get some exposition. Once he dons his waistcoat, we finally see the familiar figure, gaily bedight before us. It’s good to be back.
“Cole, that’s about close enough to that gun,” says Sheriff J. P. Harrah.
The gunman Cole Thornton replies, “I just wanted to see if you’d slowed down any.”
“Not that much.”
This first little sequence establishes a tension between the mythic hero and mythic time, and aging and aloneness. The image we find recurring later in the film of Wayne bent over in pain is here foreshadowed. It’s a visual motif that links Thornton with Harrah, who, even more so than Thornton, spends much of the film hunched over in pain, first from his drunkenness, then from the cure.
The heroes try to do the right thing, but their personalities, values, and circumstances can lead to situations which leave them badly off. After talking with Harrah, Thornton decides to decline the revealed-as-villainous Bart Jason’s (Ed Asner) job offer. All the same, he ends up having to shoot young Luke MacDonald. He takes the boy’s body back to the MacDonald place. He does the right thing, but he still gets shot by vengeful Josephine “Joey” McDonald (Michelle Carrey). When Thornton rejects Jason’s offer, it is largely his pride, and his defence of his friend, that lead him to tell Jason that, if he’s going up against Harrah, he’d better get some help. It’s meant as something of an insult, but it bites him in the behind. At the end of the scene Jason says he’ll remember what Thornton said; he hires the gunfighter Nelse McLeod. This comes back to haunt Thornton just like the bullet buried in his back. The bullet is a terrific plot device: a dangling cause, a Chekhov’s gun, a time bomb, engendering sympathy, pity, and fear in the audience. (Thornton’s disability works along the same lines as Robert Ryan’s intermittent blindness in The Proud Ones (a decade prior), but is more closely tied to the main plot-line.) The upshot: time and his past are catching up to Thornton.
The film starts with a scene in town, then one at the Jason place, then a shooting, then to the MacDonald place, then another shooting. Finally, a wounded Thornton is back in town. There follows a scene of general camaraderie: our characters cheered by good company, saddened by their losses. In no time, Cole Thornton is leaving El Dorado. He says goodbye to Maudie (Charlene Holt); he must not return till he can put Luke MacDonald behind him. A shot framed by a doorway, looking out to the West: Wayne rides off into the cactus-filled desert, towards the mountains, into the setting sun. This could be the end of a film. We fade to black.
Where the Thing Did Wander
That Act I curtain is 26 minutes into the film. The first main sequence of action ended when Thornton left Jason’s ranch, at 13 minutes, and Thornton will part ways with young Mississippi (James Caan), with the end of the Sonora scenes, at 39 minutes. Each of these 13 minutes could roughly be halved, and halved again, into discrete pieces of action. There’s a kind of fractal geometry to it. The next scene is Wayne falling from his horse (the effects of the lodged bullet), and Mississippi joining him on his quest. The narrative seeds have begun to sprout. This is classical Hollywood storytelling: economical, inevitable, unostentatious. The film quickly establishes characters, their goals, lines of action, villains and other obstacles. There’s a whole series of cause and effect emanating from the death of Luke MacDonald, and almost everything necessary to know, narratively and thematically, is established in this first act. There is a simultaneous concision and richness in the foundation of action and character.
Having had a prologue of sorts, absent in Rio Bravo, the events of the rest of El Dorado are fortified, benefiting from both causality and contrast. By meeting Harrah sober, before we later learn he has become a drunk, we care about and understand his character; therefore, we care that he should regain his self-respect. We don’t just get change; we get balance – a sense of a beginning and end, a return to a status quo, and a discrete universe preserved forever in celluloid.
Wrestling Ernest Hemingway
One day, Howard Hawks punched Ernest Hemingway. As anecdotes go, that’s already pretty much as good as it’s going to get, but you may, understandably, want to know more. Why did Hawks hit Hemingway?
He just said, “Can you hit?” I broke my whole hand. He laughed like hell, and he sat up all night making a splint out of a tomato can so that I could go shooting with him the next morning. It didn’t do my hand any good. It’s an absolutely different shape.[xii]
That was the sort of man Hawks was – the sort of man who thought that Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were too effeminate to be in Westerns.[xiii] The Hemingway story, then, reflects a number of things about the characters in El Dorado. Hawks’ characters must be likeable and basically competent. They must be able to laugh at each other when they fail or succeed. They should be frank with each other and help each other when they are hurt, and carry on regardless of the fell clutches of circumstance. According to Slim Keith, Hawks’ one-time wife:
The characters never had any intellectual reactions, only emotional ones. This always puzzled me because as a person, Howard’s emotional thermometer was stuck at about six degrees below 98.6. He was frozen there.[xiv]
Hawks knew how to tell a good story, with good characters – and it required emotion. Nonetheless, it must never fall to sentimentality. As Harrah says at one point, “Would you like it set to music, Maudie, with a full orchestra?” Emotionality must always be undercut with self-awareness, and understatement, as it usually is in life.
Thornton, Mississippi, Harrah, and his deputy, the old Indian fighter Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), all jab gibes in each others’ general directions. They try to sustain in each other an equilibrium of individual self-worth. The camaraderie is the centre of the movie as much as anything, so believable and enjoyable. There’s a wonderful scene where Robert Mitchum’s trying to take a bath while the guys and Joey and Maudie are all coming and going like it’s “the El Paso railway station”.
They all enjoy being close, but being close can get on the nerves. “Just a minute, son,” says Thornton. Mississippi replies: “I. Am not. Your son.” Caan says that “John Wayne was always calling me “kid,” and he was a guy who, if he could intimidate you, he would. But I just kept laughing at him. And thankfully, he respected that.”[xv] Respect from one another is what Hawks’ characters desire most, and what is most fulfilling to their souls.
The reverse is also true. One of the very lowest points for Harrah is when he is laughed out of the saloon. “They laughed at me,” says Mitchum, and it breaks our hearts. We understand the rage which grows from this, terrifying in its aspect: “Let me hear you laugh!” The other nadir is this:
Harrah: “Wait for me.”
He is judged and found wanting. Thornton, a professional, has no time for the unprofessional or the amateur – Mississippi’s lost-cause shooting lesson is one of the most quickly aborted attempts to teach anyone anything ever. The depths to which Harrah sinks make his rebirth all the more satisfying. It might just be that crushing sense of abandonment (“Why?”) that is the turning point for Harrah. On the wall in Maudie’s place hangs a painting of two wizened, hoary dogs, heads close together. This painting is prominently situated in the background of the shot, with Maudie to the left side, and Wayne and Mitchum together. This composition covertly reveals the heart of Hawks’ film as the story of the two old dogs who belong together. “I’m much more interested,” said Hawks, “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.”[xvi]
But He Grew Old
According to Peter Bogdanovich, “Hawks’s vision of the world is tragic: his men are gallant, brave, reckless, but it is the façade for a fatalistic approach to a world in which they hold a most tenuous position. […] [A] man must not admit to himself that he too is vulnerable to death, otherwise there is no life.”[xvii] As Hawks and Wayne got older, our heroes became ever more vulnerable. Hawks said, “I’m not very interested in making pictures about old men”[xviii] – but I guess he was stuck with one. By this stage, even if Wayne was not yet 60 when the film was shot, he was looking less comfortable in the saddle.
Thornton is riding forward, and at the point when the bullet presses against his spine, Wayne has filled the entirety of the frame. When he flinches back in agony (“a screaming pain”), it’s operatic, but real and visceral. As Thornton falls from his horse, we cut to a little wider out, Wayne now a smaller figure in the landscape: vulnerable.
Mississippi: “Hey, you fall off your horse?”
A Hawks film couldn’t be mawkish about pain or age. It is playful instead. “Don’t you think I could know a girl?” says Thornton.
In Red River (1948), Wayne had played a character older than himself, as he did again the following year in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, six days from retirement, with a swipe of silver in his hair, reading glasses in his pocket, and his own personal magic-hour followspot. Though the audience knew he wasn’t really old, those years might be a turning point. The Wayne who arrives at the Quaker farm at the start of Angel and the Badman (1947) is half-dead but full of life, the boyishness of The Big Trail still present, while the Wayne who walks out of the desert at the start of Hondo (1953) was never young.
Eventually, Duke would play elderly Westerners in the likes of True Grit (and Rooster Cogburn), Big Jake, and The Cowboys. These were oft old ornery men who prove to the young that they’re still strong, still best, still right, allowing less room for the more nuanced tints and shades of many of the earlier pictures. (Angel and the Badman, for instance, the first film Wayne produced, ends with gunfighter Wayne renouncing his gun; Harry Carey’s marshal even says, “Only a man who carries a gun ever needs one.”) Despite that, they still work pretty darn well, especially when Wayne’s got a Richard Boone or Katharine Hepburn to play against.
Before all those, though – even before the Oscar-winning eyepatch of True Grit – Wayne grew old in El Dorado. The paralysis goes up Thornton’s side, and, like hitting Hemingway, it doesn’t do his gun hand any good. If the gunfighter can’t use his gun, what is he? In a more tragic story, he would be nothing; El Dorado reminds us that he can still be a good man.
Thornton and Harrah both get shot, but keep on living. The more they endure, the more impressive their character. John Donne wrote that, “No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. […] Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.”[xix] Their wounds make it harder for them to overcome the odds against them, but Thornton and Harrah grow closer to that point in time when they shall leave time, and translate to Western legend. Still, Hawks’ heroes would rather stick around a little longer, if they could. From the same Donnean Meditation comes that commonplace, “No man is an island,” which is borne out in El Dorado. The real reason Thornton and Mississippi and Harrah – all staunchly independent persons – are able to survive as long as they do is because they have each others’ backs.
And they cheat.
Nelse McLeod (Christopher George), the gunfighter hired by Jason, is one cool character. He shares the following similarities with Thornton and Harrah: he’s one of the best, he lives by a code, and his life has not left him unmarked. The defining feature of McLeod’s appearance is the gash of a scar on the left side of his face. As a dog must have his fleas, a gunfighter must have his scars. But it is McLeod who is the real knight in quest of El Dorado. He lives by a chivalric code of “professional courtesy” – a code which, in the end, Thornton prioritises below his own survival. For such a fun, old-school romp, El Dorado possesses this reality, articulated here by Brackett:
Hollywood has created a totally mythic West, which never existed on land or sea. The whole concept of the hero, I think, began with Owen Wister’s The Virginian, more or less. Ever since, there’s been a too great feeding on oneself. When you utilize the same elements over and over, you finally begin to turn out excrement. The trouble is we’ve gotten away from what actually happened in the West. I wish that somebody would just read a little history. The pioneers were hardworking people who worked like mad to scratch to stay in one place. It was a hard, cruel country out there. These were heroes in a different sense, because they fought however they could to hold onto what they had. They didn’t worry about who drew first. They just went up from behind with a shotgun. The idea was: “Don’t get killed yourself—kill him.”[xx]
Or as Thornton says in response to Mississippi’s poetry recital, “Ride, boldly ride? Well, it don’t work out that way.” “I’m learning that,” says Mississippi. As McLeod dies, he realises that codes don’t count for much when you’re killed by a cripple. He never got a chance – he was too good.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Eldorado” was one of the favourite poems of Johnny Diamond, the man who raised Mississippi. Like McLeod, Diamond belonged to the mythic West. He was “kind of an old man,” murdered two years come September before we meet Mississippi in that cantina in Sonora, but his presence is felt throughout the film. Diamond’s nonappearance lends him an aura of legend, but his hat, hangover recipe, and philosophies of life live on. We cannot think of friendships, honour codes, or vengeance, without thinking of Diamond. The last-surviving of his murderers, Charlie Hagen, says Diamond was a cheat. “No. No, he was good,” says the avenging Mississippi. “He didn’t have to cheat.” Wayne’s character in El Dorado, however, does have to cheat. He’s good, but he’s crippled, so what can he do?
Unlike the character McLeod represents, Diamond wasn’t one of those supreme gunfighter characters.
Mississippi: “Johnny didn’t believe in guns. He always thought—”
Thornton: “He’s dead. Think about that. ’Less you can learn to stay out of trouble.”
Of course, that’s one thing none of El Dorado’s characters can do.
It Belongs in a Museum!
Remember the Pirate’s Code, in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl? The Code, as shown by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), is able to be weaselled out of on technicalities, only applies to Pirates (it does not govern their interaction with other members of society), and, even then, “the Code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules”. The Pirates films are set in a world where swashbuckling heroes remain, but not unscarred. Their way of life is threatened by the coming of civilisation, the engineers of which are all terribly uncivilised people. This scenario is present in numerous films from Pirates scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio: The Mask of Zorro, The Road to El Dorado, arguably even in Shrek.
In the framing device of Gore Verbinski’s Liberty Valance-tinged The Lone Ranger (Elliot and Rossio were writers), Tonto (Johnny Depp) is literally a museum piece. He attempts to tell his story how it really happened – but what can we really believe? Elliot and Rossio’s scripts owe a debt to the movies of Spielberg and Lucas. Obi-Wan Kenobi is a forgotten knight of old, Indiana Jones is a pulp adventurer who belongs in a museum. These characters are almost personifications of their genre.
Genres transition from a period of experimentation, to a classical era, to self-critique.[xxi] We can see full cycles of this with the Western and the Musical, their development roughly aligning with the history of the Hollywood studios. As much as this comes of audience familiarity with generic conventions, it also comes of writers and directors, and most especially stars, growing older. In Post-Heyday[xxii] or Old Age Westerns[xxiii], an aging gunfighter might look back on their past, seek to find solace, or simply hope to carry on gracefully until they die. Think of The Shootist, Unforgiven, Ride the High Country; there are many more.
Is Wayne old enough in El Dorado for it to be an Old Age Western? Well, in the granddaddy of the genre, Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is only 35. In films where the Post-Heyday gunfighter is a little younger, he often wants to settle down and marry, as in Warlock, The Law and Jake Wade, or Gunfight at the OK Corral. But the gunfighter’s past, his reputation, his line of work, all drag him inexorably back into the fray.
There is frequently friction between fact and fiction. Dime novel authors or newspapermen may materialise to irritate the elderly Westerner. Young bucks either idolise (and become disillusioned with), or want to kill (to be the man who killed) the legend. This gap exists – Hollywood tells us – between the legend Hollywood told us, and the reality. Cole Thornton explains to Kevin MacDonald what happened to his son: a boy was sent to do a man’s job, he was frightened, Thornton returned fire – he didn’t know who was on that rock. Then the gut-shot Luke MacDonald committed suicide. We only ever heard the third shot, though; we must trust Wayne. Of course, we’ve no reason not to. He’s John Wayne, isn’t he?
Joey: “Cole Thornton, I don’t believe you.
Thornton: “I don’t care much, miss, whether you do or not.”
Even the manliest men of the West, and of the movie business, had a little fiction about them. Hemingway-hitting Hawks? Take Slim’s word for it:
If anything, he was slightly frightened of movie making, and I suspect, surprised that he was able to do it at all. He used to tell me that on the first day of shooting a new picture he would stop the car, get out, and throw up a couple of times on his way to the studio. That process would go on for about a week until he got into the rhythm of the work and the movie started rolling along…[xxiv]
John Wayne? His real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison.
In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, William Munny (Eastwood) must drink before he can take his revenge in the thunderous climax. Rio Bravo’s Dude (Dean Martin) and El Dorado’s Harrah, on the other hand, must in the course of their narratives sober up. Dude and Harrah find salvation. In the case of Munny, the title gives it away. Is one of these stories more true? “Of course,” said Brackett, “I like the Hollywood Western because it’s fun, but I think that some people are taking it far too seriously, because they’re not dissecting anything real to begin with.”[xxv]
The Valley of the Shadow
Pauline Kael said that El Dorado had the second-worst lighting she had ever seen. Roger Ebert said she needed her glasses scrubbed.[xxvi] The action scenes take place mostly at night, so Hawks could use the light to direct the audience’s eyes as he wished. The darkness, at an emotional level, might be a shadow threatening to envelop our legends. Cowardly gunmen hide out there, a constant unseen threat. Or maybe it’s just nothingness, emptiness – whatever might be in stall for us at the end – to be contrasted with the amber warmth inside the sheriff’s office full of friends, somewhat reminiscent of the golden glow in the domestic settings of John Ford’s The Searchers. Hawks, on the lighting:
I noticed that the Remington paintings always had a great slash of light across the street coming out of the saloon door. So I said to the cameraman [Harold Rosson] “How do we get this?” He said, “Use yellow light, but don’t walk your people through it—they’ll look like they had yellow jaundice or something.” He used back light on them, and it was a very mellow, pleasant look. [xxvii]
Frederic Remington, maybe the most famous painterly preserver of the West, died at 48, in December 1909. In his last decade of life, Remington had turned to trying to capture the colour and life of night in the West. In the late nocturnes, figures gather close by a campfire, vulnerable in the cold, vast night. Sometimes there is a small, neat yellow square of light from a house or a carriage; it just makes the darkness all the more encompassing. In The Shootist, J.B. Books (Wayne) sums himself up: “I’m a dying man scared of the dark.”
As After Sunset Fadeth in the West
Legends are not like us, we are told. At the end of The Searchers, Wayne halts before the threshold. There is no place for him in the domestic, civilised world, now the job is done. Like a gunfighter who would rather not have a punk in every town trying to make a name by shooting him, an ordinary life is impossible. The mirrored opening and closing shots of The Gunfighter – a lone figure riding through the landscape – convey the tragic cycle of violence and legend in the West.[xxviii]
In El Dorado, J.P. and Cole end the film walking in the street together, each leaning on a crutch. They are both sporting badges, so presumably the job continues. They are still not domesticated, but they have their place in the world. This final shot is a replica of the camera setup of the film’s second shot, where we first got a proper look at Mitchum, the lone sheriff, walking down the streets of El Dorado. Now, the old dogs are together, and we imagine that Wayne will probably stick around. He might drift off, and Mitchum will probably get tangled up with another girl – but we leave them here. They are self-reliant, yet dependent on each other, and they enjoy each other’s company. Whereas the earlier shot was in the day, this one is at night, and Wayne and Mitchum now both walk with a crutch. Even though he’s crippled, and that bullet’s still in his back, Thornton is happier, more integrated and equal, no longer quite the infallible legend, towering above the rest, as in Rio Bravo. As much as the final shot is a repetition, it is, like the rest of the film, doing things by opposites.
Harrah: It’ll be a nice quiet town after you leave, Cole.
Thornton: How do you know I’m leaving?
Harrah: We just don’t need your kind around here.
Unlike most post-1960 Westerns in the post-heyday mode, El Dorado isn’t a postmodern critique, mournful elegy, or even throwback nostalgia. Maybe because it’s the work of the old pros, this film feels more than nostalgic. It’s the Real McCoy. Somehow, it exists. Against the odds, the bruised and battered genre carried on.
When asked what he thought about modern Westerns trying to debunk the mythology of the West, Hawks replied, “You mean there are people around today who remember what it was like?”[xxix] Let us sing instead of gallant knights grown weary, who boldly rode in search of El Dorado.
[i] Howard Hawks, interviews by Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, [originally published 1982] 2013), 144.
[ii] Ibid., 141.
[iii] Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western (Berkley: University of California Press, 2012), 147. Or as it was put by Robert Mitchum, “It’s a case of making a successful formula and jumping on your own bandwagon. Normally, it’s other directors who jump on the bandwagon, but Howard’s the only guy I know who jumps on his own.” (Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth (New York: New American Library, 2003), 264.
[iv] Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, 170.
[vi] Donald C. Willis, The Films of Howard Hawks (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1975), 62.
[vii] Leigh Brackett, interview by Steve Swires, “Leigh Brackett: Journeyman Plumber,” in Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, ed. Patrick McGilligan (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991), 21.
[viii] Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, 170.
[ix] Robert Mitchum, interview by Charles Champlin, in Mitchum: In His Own Words, ed. Jerry Roberts (New York: Limelight Editions, 2000), 105.
[x] Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, 166.
[xi] Ibid., 168.
[xii] Ibid., 46.
[xiii] Ibid., 145.
[xiv] Slim Keith, with Annette Tapert, Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 87.
[xv]James Caan, interview by Will Harris, “James Caan on The Godfather, John Wayne, and All the Roles He’s Done as Favors,” A. V. Club, June 21, 2013, http://www.avclub.com/article/james-caan-on-ithe-godfatheri-john-wayne-and-all-t-99275.
[xvi] Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, 172.
[xvii] Peter Bogdanovich,“El Dorado,” in Focus on Howard Hawks, ed. Joseph McBride (Englewood Cliffs: Pretince-Hall, 1972), 147-49.
[xviii] Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, 148.
[xix] John Donne, Meditation 17 from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions [originally published 1624], in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., vol. B, The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton, 2012), 1421.
[xx] Brackett, Backstory 2, 22-23.
[xxi] For further discussion, see Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981.
[xxii] For further discussion, see Jean-Christophe Cloutier, “A Country for Old Men: Unforgiven, The Shootist, and the Post-Heyday Western,” Cinema Journal 51.4 (2012): 110-29, doi: 10.1353/cj.2012.0074.
[xxiii] For further discussion, see Brian Baker, Masculinity in Fiction and Film: Representing Men in Popular Genres 1945–2000 (London: Continuum, 2006), 124-143.
[xxiv] Keith, with Talpert, Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life, 87.
[xxv] Brackett, Backstory 2, 23.
[xxvi] Roger Ebert, review of El Dorado, directed by Howard Hawks, Chicago Sun Times, August 4, 1967, archived at RogerEbert.com, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/el-dorado-1967.
[xxvii] Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, 102.
[xxviii] A similar observation, further elaborated on, can be found in Stephen McVeigh, The American Western, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 83.
[xxix] Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, 143.
Business business business numbers: El Dorado began photography in late 1965, finishing in late January 1966, having shot for 84 days (24 days over schedule). The original budget was $3.8m, swelling to $4.5m. It made $5.2m domestic, and around $12m worldwide. (Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and Legend (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 423-4; Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, 264.)
Further thoughts: I didn’t get to say much about Maudie and Joey here, so if anyone wants to write about them and other more obscure Hawksian women, I’d like to read it. Or, something about Hawks’ blocking and framing in Rio Bravo and El Dorado.