Directed with assurance by Henry Hathaway and with a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, this is a feel good western that sets out with one purpose in mind – to entertain – and it does that in spades.
El Dorado (1966)
Wayne re-teamed with Howard Hawks for this quasi-remake of Rio Bravo that has him playing a gunfighter who allies himself with a drunken lawman (Robert Mitchum) against a powerful local rancher. So which is the better film?
As the drunken sheriff, Robert Mitchum is superb but is he better that Dean Martin in Rio Bravo? It’s an impossible choice — Mitchum’s drunk is played more for laughs than the emotional wreck that Martin portrayed and it just serves to emphasise El Dorado’s lighter tone.
A young James Caan fills the Ricky Nelson role and his Mississippi is a cooler, funnier, and much more interesting character than Nelson’s Colorado. Caan, even at this early stage in his career, is a real actor (unlike Nelson) and while he has no hope of stealing the film from pros like Wayne and Mitchum, he holds his own.
Arthur Hunnicutt was a great character actor and Bull Harris is one of his best creations but he’s filling the role originally played by the master. Walter Brennan is the man when it comes to grumpy old sidekicks with a heart of pure gold and Stumpy in Rio Bravo is the pinnacle of that archetype. So, good though Hunnicutt is, when you’re up against the best all you can hope for is second place.
The romantic interest for Wayne is provided by Charlene Holt, whose biggest claim to fame (apart from somehow wangling a part in this western classic) was being crowned "Miss Maryland" in 1956. That probably says all that needs to be said about her acting ability and she’s certainly no Angie Dickinson.
So lets check the score – 1 for El Dorado (Caan), 2 for Rio Bravo (Brennan and Dickinson) and one too close to call (Mitchum vs Martin), which leaves us with Wayne. Several years older and having had major surgery to remove a cancerous lung just two years before, Wayne was still a powerful screen presence. It’s hard to pick between his performances in the two films, with the onscreen banter with Brennan weighing in Rio Bravo’s favour while the chemistry with up-and-comer Caan is always fun to watch.