Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Valiant Few

This is my entry to Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch's Symbiotic Collaboration Blogathon

Howard Hawks was a prolific director who made many great iconic movies. Leonard Maltin has been quoted as saying that Hawks was "the greatest American director who is not a household name."  His credits include war movies (The Dawn Patrol, Sergeant York), slapstick comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), dramas like the Bogart-Bacall classic To Have and To Have Not, and even a sci-fi classic, The Thing (from Another World).  He also made a number of westerns, 5 of which starred John Wayne (Red River, Hatari!, Rio Lobo and the subjects of this blog entry Rio Bravo and El Dorado)

John Wayne made some 142 movies over a career that spanned hundreds of years... seriously only 50 years, but it seemed like he was around forever and we'd have him forever.  Unfortunately cancer did the job on him that hundreds of gunmen in the movies couldn't do.  But before that untimely event, The Duke gave us many, many movies, most of them westerns, that remain indelible on the landscape of cinema.  His favorite director was John Ford, of course, but I'd guess he also liked Howard Hawks, having made, as I mentioned before, 5 movies with him.

I chose to contrast the two here, Rio Bravo  and El Dorado, because, unlike the majority of my fellow John Wayne fans, I think El Dorado is a far more entertaining film, and is better executed than Rio Bravo,  despite a few flaws.  The incongruous sing-a-long in the middle of Rio Bravo was one of the major sticking points for me.  There are a dozen or more bad guys outside the jail, all gunning for the sheriff and his men, and they take time out to have a leisurely sing-a-long?  Of course, we all know the only reason this part was in the movie was because Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson had singing careers on the other side of the camera, but that doesn't excuse the incongruity.

Red River, although not included in this review, is a really excellent Hawks/Wayne movie.  I have yet to see Hatari! so I can't recommend it as yet.  See the end of this review for a brief comment on Rio Lobo which is another remake of sorts of Rio Bravo and El Dorado.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Rio Bravo had it's genesis as a counterpoint to Fred Zimmerman's High Noon, which both Hawks and Wayne hated.  Hawks didn't like the decidedly un-macho character of a sheriff who runs around "like a chicken with it's head cut off asking for help".  Wayne disliked it because he saw it as anti-American, an allegory against blacklisting and McCarthyism by liberals in Hollywood who were  against the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Together they conspired to make a movie about a man who shows no fear and is determined to follow through on his principles.  A man who does not beg for help from the townspeople and even rejects the help of friends.

We are immediately immersed into the story as "Dude" (Dean Martin) stumbles into a bar, looking for a free drink.
Dean Martin as "Dude"

Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) throws a silver dollar towards Dude, but deliberately makes it land in a spittoon.  As Dude tries to retrieve the dollar, the sheriff, John Chance (John Wayne) kicks the spittoon away.  Dude takes out his frustration by hitting the sheriff on the head and knocking him out.  Meanwhile a scuffle occurs and Joe shoots and kills an unarmed man.  He then leaves, but is caught at a nearby bar by the revived sheriff and arrested for murder.

John Wayne as Sheriff Chance (with Claude Akins, back to the camera, as Joe Burdette)

This entire opening sequence up until the arrest of Joe is done without dialogue.  It is an homage to Hawks' early days of directing silent movies.  The sheriff takes Joe into custody after a brief show of force.  Chance reinstates his deputy, "Dude".  The next day, a wagon train arrives into town with a friend of Chance's, Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) in charge.  He has a young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson) with him.  The wagon is full of oil and dynamite.  Wheeler offers to help the sheriff but he declines the offer.  This is in direct conflict with the plot of High Noon in which Gary Cooper's character begs for help but can't get any.

Chance goes to the bar where he observes a new girl in town "Feathers" (Angie Dickinson) at a table gambling and winning.  After she leaves the table he examines the cards and then later approaches her in her room and intimates that the deck was missing cards. He accuses her of being an accomplice noted on a wanted poster he has.  She says it is her on the poster, but she wasn't cheating and insists that he search her.  Chance is flustered and embarrassed and declines to search her.  (Side note:  If Angie offered to let me search her, I'd have had no qualms at all...)

Angie Dickinson as "Feathers"

Colorado comes in and tells Chance that he was watching the game and that it was another guy at the table who was cheating.  The two go down and confront him, and he attempts to draw on them but fails.  Chance goes back up to Feathers to apologize, but won't admit to full guilt in his mistake.  He tells her to get out of town on the next stage, though.  A short time later Chance's friend Pat is shot and killed.  Dude and Chance go looking for the man and find him hiding in ambush at a bar and Dude shoots him.

The situation between Chance and Feathers becomes a little more interesting when Feathers says she is staying in town, as she now has legitimately been hired by Carlos ( Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) to tend his bar.

Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez (with Dickinson)

Joe Burdette's brother, Nathan, shows up to try to get his brother out of jail, but Chance says it's no go; he is going to have to stand trial.  Nathan hangs around in the meantime with some unsavory characters, and convinces the mariachi bar band to play "Deguello" which is the same tune the Mexicans played while trying to sweat out the defenders of The Alamo.  Colorado tells Chance it means "No Quarter" which is a message that Nathan is sending saying there will be no more negotiations.

John Russell as Nathan Burdette (with Claude Akins)

As mentioned earlier, it is around this time that Colorado, Dude and the rest are in the jail and they break into the sing-a-long.  In retrospect, I guess it fits, as they are attempting to drown out the mariachi band, but I still have trouble with the concept.

Ricky Nelson sings as Colorado

Now I will admit that the last quarter of this movie is very suspenseful, and well worth having put up with any disagreements with it I may have had in the previous three quarters of it.  The parallels of the two movies reviewed here are intriguingly similar.  Both have you thinking that just when the odds seemed to be somewhat equal, a twist in the plan lowers the odds for the good guys.  How they resolve the issues, you have to watch to find out.

El Dorado (1966)

In this one Wayne is not a lawman.  Instead he is a hired gunman, Cole Thornton, who has come to the Texas town of El Dorado to talk to a rancher about hiring out as a gunman.  But at the beginning of the movie he encounters an old friend, J. P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) who tells Thornton details about the feud between his prospective boss, Bart Jason (Ed Asner), and his rival Kevin MacDonald (R. G. Armstrong).  Harrah is, at this point in the film, a sober and aware man.

John Wayne as Cole Thorton and Robert Mitchum as J. P. Harrah

Thornton rides out to Jason's ranch to decline his offer.

Ed Asner as Bart Jason

But in the meantime MacDonald has been forewarned about the coming of Thornton and is prepared for the worst.  He has his son Luke (Johnny Crawford, known to millions as Mark McCain, the son on the TV series The Rifleman) set up to give a warning shot when Thornton passes by his watch post.  Thornton mistakes the rifle shot as someone shooting at him and shoots Luke.  Still alive, Luke tells him who he is, but kills himself before Thornton can help. Thornton takes the boy's body to the MacDonald farm, convinces MacDonald of the truth and leaves.  But MacDonald's headstrong daughter doesn't believe his story and ambushes him.  Thornton survives but he has an injury which causes him trouble throughout the rest of the movie.

A few months later Thornton is in an unnamed town encounters two more significant characters of the film.  "Mississippi" (James Caan) {whose real name is "Alan Bedillion Trahearne", which is why they call him "Mississippi"}, who has been following Nelson MacLeod (Christopher George), because one of his hired gunmen was instrumental in the death of his father figure a year earlier.  Mississippi kills the gang member with a thrown knife, and Thornton prevents him from being shot in the back by a fellow gang member.  MacLeod  attempts to get Thornton to join him, but after hearing that he, MacLeod, is going to take on the job Thornton already turned down, he refuses.

James Cann as "Mississippi"

Christopher George as Nelse MacLeod
Having heard that Harrah is still the sheriff but is now also a drunk, Thornton heads of to El Dorado.  He is reluctant to be accompanied by, but is eventually joined by Mississippi.  Mississippi is fond of quoting lines from a poem his father figure taught him (not actually stated in the movie but it is the Edgar Allan Poe poem "El Dorado").  They arrive in El Dorado where, sure enough, Harrah is passed out drunk.  His second in command, a deputy by the name of Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicut) is helping him keep the peace.  Mississippi uses a concoction that makes the sheriff ill, but keeps him from being able to hold his liquor.

Arthur Hunnicut as Bull (middle; with Wayne and Caan)

An attack on the MacDonald clan when they come to town eventually leads to the arrest of Bart Jason.  Jason makes an offer to MacLeod to get him out of jail in whatever way possible.  Finally sobering up, Harrah tells MacLeod if he does try that, Jason will be the first one shot.  The final act of the movie involves a nail-biting standoff between the four men (Thornton, Harrah, Bull and Mississippi) against the entire o0utfit that MacLeod has with which to combat them.  Hindering this is that old wound of Thornton's of which I spoke earlier, that prevents him from using his gun hand.

Although this is, as I stated earlier, a remake of the movie Rio Bravo, I still insist that this one, as opposed to many of my fellow Wayne aficionados, is the better of the two.  Not just because of the aforementioned sing-a-long, but also because I consider Mitchum to be an astoundingly much better actor than Dean Martin. Besides, I often joke, who knows for sure whether Dean Martin is acting drunk, or really is drunk?

Wayne and Hawks pulled together to do the "one small group against a whole gang" theme once more with Rio Lobo in 1970.  It is extremely unfortunate that this was the last film that Howard Hawks directed because I feel that most of the actors in it, including Wayne at times, are just going through the motions.  Perhaps Hawks was no longer at the top of his game.  Then again, it may have just had to be what he had on hand in the rest of the cast.  Jennifer O'Neill could have been replaced by a mannequin and gotten a better acting job by the trade.  Christopher Mitchum was definitely not the equal of his father.  And Jorge Rivero, while possibly a good actor in his native Mexico, was not only miscast (a Mexican was a Confederate officer, I don't THINK so...), but not able to convince me of his sincerity.
In addition, a remake of sorts was done by John Carpenter (my personal favorite film director) in 1976 as Assault on Precinct 13, which took place in modern times, but Carpenter admits he was influenced by the story.  One could also say that Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars was influenced by the Hawks films.

Well, it's off to the ranch for me.  That's it from the back seat this week, folks.  Drive safely home.



  1. Hi Quiggy, thank you so much for partiicpating in my blogathon. I look forward to reading your post during the week. Thanx again!!


    1. It was fun. El Dorado is my favorite John Wayne movie, and I loved contrasting the two.

  2. The opening to "Rio Bravo" is superb. I'm one of those who enjoys the musical interlude - enjoys it very much. It fits in with the leisurely pace that you must adapt to in order to really enjoy the movie.

    On the other hand, there are things about "El Dorado" that exceed even the pleasures of song and their names are Mitchum, Hunnicut and Caan. The movie is a little plot heavy and unwieldy at the beginning and this is a major distraction for me.

    Nonetheless, I enjoy the idea of Howard Hawks and John Wayne still doing their thing all those years after "Red River". A delightful collaboration.

  3. What I like about both films is the chemistry John Wayne has with both Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. I think I favour the Rio Bravo because I saw it a couple of times before seeing El Dorado but, as you pointed out, there are things to admire in both.

    Thanks for sharing this comparison. You've given me lots to think about the next time I see these two films. :)


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