Howard Hawks takes a second shot at Rio Bravo

Howard Hawks takes a second shot at Rio Bravo

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Timed to the release of Seth MacFarlane’s oater spoof A Million Ways To Die In The West, we single out some favorite Western-comedies.

El Dorado (1966)

With the exception of the 1932 Scarface, a brutal early masterpiece crisscrossed by dolly shots, Howard Hawks’ films are rarely discussed in terms of visual style. “Hawksian”—one of the prettiest words in the film-critic vocabulary—denotes an attitude, not a technique. It means a sensitive handling of group dynamics, a preference for situation over plot, a love of banter, and a predilection for assertive, tomboyish women.  

But Hawks was a masterful stylist. His best later films sound like train wrecks—incredibly long, meandering, and veering from the lighthearted to the tragic—but play fluidly, the dramatic and comic elements meshing together to create rich, deep movies that also happen to be tremendously entertaining.  

What makes the later Hawks movies work? Part of the answer lies in his crisp, clean visual style. The just-below-eye-level compositions make it seem as though the camera is part of the same group as the characters. The frames are tall and roomy, as are the sets, which seem just slightly out of proportion with the actors. (Hawks’ later Westerns feature some of the most spacious jail cells in the history of the genre.) The camera moves when the characters do. 

In the final decade or so of his career, Hawks made three Westerns with more or less the same plot: Rio Bravo in 1959El Dorado in 1966, and 1970’s Rio Lobo. All three star John Wayne, and involve a sheriff defending his station against a band of outlaws. (Hawks superfan John Carpenter used the same premise in two movies, Assault On Precinct 13 and the underrated sci-fi Western Ghosts Of Mars.) Rio Bravo, the first of three, is one of the genre’s unimpeachable masterpieces. The second, the slow-boil comedy El Dorado, isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it comes close.   

El Dorado shouldn’t work. It came at an awkward time in the history of the American Western, after the end of the genre’s classic period, but before its revisionist revival. The men all look too old, and the women look like they’ve just returned from the hairdresser. Much of the screenplay—by the great Leigh Brackett—was chucked out the window. (Brackett would jokingly refer to the finished film as “The Son Of Rio Bravo Rides Again.”) It takes a good hour to set up the bare-bones plot. Some scenes were improvised on a whim. Robert Mitchum kept forgetting which side he was supposed to limp on, leading Hawks to insert a line poking fun at the continuity problems. Occasionally, the movie seems to have trouble deciding whether it’s a remake or a parody of Rio Bravo

It’s not that Hawks’ style rescues El Dorado; it’s that it integrates all of these problems, producing a movie that feels effortlessly complete and consistent, despite being, frankly, all over the place. 

When Hawks offered the co-starring role to Robert Mitchum, he reportedly told the actor that El Dorado would have “no story, just characters.” That self-deprecating description doesn’t quite do the movie justice. Each of the major characters—from nervy knife-thrower Mississippi (a young James Caan) to archetypal “Hawksian woman” Maudie (Charlene Holt, who gets the movie’s best lines)—brings their own distinct humor and their own distinct sadness. As the movie glides on, slipping from scene to scene, the characters begin to seem fuller, and therefore funnier. It’s one of the rare films where a running gag gets better with each iteration, and one of the rare Western comedies without a hint of satire. It takes an hour to set up the plot because it takes the viewer an hour to get to know Cole (Wayne) and J.P. (Mitchum). But when they do, every wisecrack begins to feel like an inside joke that only Cole, J.P., and the viewer understand. 

Availability: El Dorado is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.


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