Famous man’s-man director Howard Hawks was primarily a maker of “action” movies, but in the olden days of Hollywood the tag was a thoroughly respectable one implying no aspersion on the audience of such films. Some of the most admired directors of silents, Rex Ingram, and Sergei Eisenstein himself, were action directors. In the Thirties came Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh, both today considered master craftsmen of fast-paced adventures made with intelligence, imagination and spirit: in other words, more than Spielberg, Lucas or other of their ilk have ever achieved, and bearing hardly any relation at all to today’s blood-and-gore fests dished up as standard fare for desensitized ghouls who pass as film buffs.
Modern cineastes have concluded that Hawks’ particular schtick was the theme of male comaraderie, starting notably with Only Angels Have Wings (1939) most familiar to modern film fans. But by then he had produced all-time classics in several genres: the similarly pilot-concerned Dawn Patrol, Scarface, Road to Glory, and not least, screwball comedy in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday to follow shortly after with Sergeant York, his third classic on World War I. He came late to westerns with 1948’s Red River but only John Ford’s are admired more, and just a few including Henry King are said to rank with Hawks as authentic interpreters of the American scene. Rio Bravo was remade with the same director-star combination into El Dorado (and certain refrains were replayed in Rio Lobo four years later). Superstar John Wayne was accompanied by Dean Martin in the first, Robert Mitchum in the second. The Duke is his Mount Rushmore self in both, each time a former hired gun turned lawman (the town sheriff in the first; allying himself with the town sheriff, an old friend, in the remake). And each story centers on him supporting his co-star in rehabilitating from town bumhood brought on by a no-good floozie. Making up the rest of the male ingroup are Ricky Nelson/James Caan on the youth side and Walter Brennan/Arthur Hunnicut as the curmudgeonly but humorously persnickety jailkeeper.Rio Bravo, for ill-defined reasons, is the more generally admired by critics. Maybe the prominent contemporary critics that greeted the remake in the Sixties were just more vicious: Pauline Kael, Richard Schickel … Hawks specifically remade it because he believed he could improve on the first version, and then believed he had. I too, maybe because a child of the Sixties, have always preferred El Dorado, though having just seen Rio Bravo again and giving it proper attention, I appreciate its niceties more than before.
Hawks knew what he was doing in remaking it. There seems to be more happening, backed with a booming wall-to-wall Sixties soundtrack. It is in every way less sentimental than its Fifties forebear. The female roles are less defined in the remake (spread as they are now between Charlene Holt and Michele Carey), almost perfunctory compared with Angie Dickinson’s fully defined one, more in the nature of eye candy. That by itself says more about how spectacularly constructed female stars were treated in the Sixties. Raquel Welch hardly ever got a whiff of the central roles Sophia Loren had been entrusted with at an even younger age a decade earlier. And compare ingenue Natalie Wood with, say, the later Sandra Dee — typical Sixties teen fodder; and Tuesday Weld not allowed to show her talent until almost middle age. Dickinson plays a hard-drinking professional gambler turning back to saloon singing for new beau Duke’s sake, while in the Sixties version Duke comes across all bashful as an old-friend-of-the-family even responding to all-grown-up wholesome Charlene Holt, who has a scene sashaying around in a revealing figure-hugging number for no apparent reason but the aforementioned eye-candy factor.I would have thought by most measures El Dorado is a less compromised piece of filmmaking. The performances of Robert Mitchum and James Caan are more convincing than those of their prototypes. Moreover, the expanded, modified role of Caan allows a real relationship to develop between him and his mentor (Wayne). Maybe simply to give the ensemble cast more on-screen time, there is a conscious insert in Rio Bravo where singing stars Martin and Nelson get to do their thing — Dean crooning a cowboy song — ‘My Rifle, My Pony, and Me’ — with less C & W feel than anyone since Roy Rogers. Ricky bats his thick eyelashes and heavy lids for the girls rather irritatingly throughout, and almost pouts his more-generous-than-Elvis lips. Walter Brennan comes close to self-parody with his incessant cackling. On top of this, the original is far too wordy, especially for a western — courtesy of the screenplay by highly cultured Hawks favorites Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett.