I think I was all of about ten years old the last time I saw El Dorado. All I remember is that it didn’t make much of an impact on me. I think the same thing happened with the critics when it was originally released, too. Fortunately, after having watched it again after all these years, I can proudly say that the hand of time has been quite kind to Howard Hawks’ western. In fact, El Dorado might be better now than it was 43 years ago.
Legendary gunslinger Cole Thornton (John Wayne) is back in the town of El Dorado, called in by shady rancher Bart Jason (Ed Asner) to settle a few things with the McDonald family. Thornton’s old friend, sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) stops to pay his old buddy a visit, informing him that the whole arrangement isn’t kosher, and that it would inevitably pit them against each other. Wisely, Thornton passes the job, but still manages to receive a crippling, wounded by a headstrong member of the McDonald family (played the beautiful Michele Carey) in the process.
Some months later, Thornton meets up with a young greenhorn called Mississippi (James Caan) who is out to settle a debt with a scar-faced scoundrel by the name of McLeod. Smoothing things out as best he can before the shit really hits the fan, Thornton learns that McLeod has filled the post he himself left behind. Worse still, our aging hero discovers that his old pal Harrah has since become an inveterate alcoholic, and that he would be no match against McLeod and his men. And so, Thornton and Mississippi head back to El Dorado to sober Harrah up (leading to one of the funniest moments in film) and to take on the bad guys. Arthur Hunnicutt turns in a memorable performance as Harrah’s ornery horn-tooting deputy Bull and Charlene Holt is on hand as the platonic love interest for both of the old cowboys.
Although it’s basically an uncredited remake of Hawks’ 1959 masterpiece Rio Bravo, El Dorado does deserve its share of praise. First off, the story and direction seem to be a lot tighter than they were in the earlier flick (and why shouldn’t they — everything becomes easier after the first time, right?). Second, it’s the only other time in cinema that John Wayne and Robert Mitchum (who really owns his part) were onscreen together (the first being The Longest Day in 1962). Third, say hello to a brilliant breakout performance by young James Caan as Alan Bourdillion “Mississippi” Traherne, and the great Christopher George as the sinister McLeod.
While this "Centennial Collection" edition might very well be the umpteenth release of El Dorado on DVD alone (it has been issued at least nine times before as a standard edition and in several John Wayne multi-packs), this version is definitely an improvement. The new High-Def 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation has never looked better, with very little debris to distract the viewer whatsoever and a color schematic that is well-balanced.
Several other of Paramount's "Centennial Collection" titles featured new English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, but with the new El Dorado, we only have the original mono stereo (perhaps the eventual Blu-ray edition of the film will contain a new 5.1 mix? Please, Paramount?). As it stands, the original English track sounds fine and comes through nice and loud — especially when Mississippi fires that ol’ shotgun. Additional audio options include French and Spanish mono stereo (both of which sound rather tinny and muddled). Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
With a header like “Centennial Collection,” one grits their teeth hoping to their own sweet personal Jesus that there are some special features for once other than a damn trailer. Sure enough, there are — a whole extra disc’s worth in fact. But first, let’s go over the bonus features on Disc 1. The main feature contains two audio commentaries, the first with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. The second commentary is by film historian Richard Schickel with a little help from Ed Asner and author Todd McCarthy.
Special features on Disc 2 include the seven-part featurette “Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey To El Dorado” (41:50), which features interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Ed Asner among others; a vintage 1967 short film, "The Artist And The American West" (5:28); and an interview with Paramount vet A.C. Lyles in “Behind The Gates: A.C. Lyles Remembers John Wayne” (5:32). Rounding up the selection of much-needed extras is that faithful old trailer we’ve been seeing on DVD for nine years and a gallery focusing on Lobby Cards and Production Stills.
Yes, El Dorado definitely makes for a better view now than it did when I was ten. Back then, I couldn’t appreciate the film’s action and I probably didn’t get all of the humor (especially Wayne’s adlib about Mitchum’s poor continuity with his crutch). As I watch Wayne, Mitchum, Caan, and Hunnicutt now sneaking down the dark city streets, I can’t help but say to myself, “Yes, this is good. Damn good.”