El Dorado and Rio Bravo

Posted on July 16, 2010

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In Get Shorty, there’s a brief bit about the difference between two John Wayne movies, El Dorado and Rio Bravo. That’s because, at their core, they’re the same movie.

The shared plot goes like this: An alcoholic sheriff and his buddy lock up a killer. Trouble is, that’s all they can do until a marshal shows up to transport the prisoner to trial. Meanwhile, the jail is under siege by friends and family of the killer.

Interestingly, Rio Bravo is from a short story and El Dorado is from a novel. Leigh Brackett worked on both screenplays. Both are directed by Howard Hawks. They’re both terrific movies, and I watched them over July 4th weekend, during AMC‘s John Wayne movie marathon. That gave me a new chance to compare the two.

Both are fairly morally complex. Rio Bravo‘s sheriff, Dude (played by Dean Martin), struggles with alcohol addiction and its consequences for most of the film. Considering Martin’s reputation as a drinker, it’s a bravura performance. The film explicitly shows the cost of alcoholism on perception, physical abilities, work, and relationships.

El Dorado‘s sheriff, J.P. Harrah (played by Robert Mitchum), is also a drunk. However, he drinks a magic potion and the story moves on. The meat of El Dorado is in how it treats violence. The consequences of violence are clear and inescapable. The way violence leads to more violence is a theme throughout the movie.

Of the two, Rio Bravo was first (1959). The time difference (El Dorado came out in 1966) goes a long way to explaining the differences between the two. By 1966, America’s culture was in the middle of an upheaval. Our response to the Vietnam War was far different from our response to WWII and the Korean War. Peace and love were growing in priority, particularly among young people. Although Rio Bravo made a point of casting Ricky Nelson to cross generations (he and Dean Martin even sing a duet), El Dorado forms more of a meditation on generational differences. You can read it as Howard Hawks, Leigh Brackett, and other experienced Hollywood people trying to understand what was happening in America.

Or, you know, you could just enjoy two terrific Westerns. As Chili Palmer points out, “Now John Wayne, he did the same in both. He played John Wayne.”

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Posted in: Movies