Favorite Movies: Rio Bravo and El Dorado

Ricky Nelson, John Wayne, and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959)

Over a period of eight years, director Howard Hawks filmed virtually the same story twice—both films starring John Wayne—with the only differences being some minor script changes and a different set of supporting actors. The films were Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1967). Interestingly, both films hold up pretty well today.

Both films were a reaction to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), in which Sheriff Gary Cooper tries and fails to enlist the help of his fellow townspeople in fending off an attack of several bad guys seeking vengeance for having jailed several of them. In contrast, John Wayne turns away several offers of help in the Hawks pictures and beats the bad guys anyway. Both times, the sheriff is under attack by wealthy ranchers who bring in hired guns to assist them.

Here are the major cast differences:

  • John Wayne plays himself in both pictures, though in El Dorado, he is a gunfighter assisting his friend, the sheriff, played by Robert Mitchum.
  • Dean Martin plays the drunk lawman in Rio Bravo; Robert Mitchum, in El Dorado.
  • The young gun is played, respectively, by Ricky Nelson and James Caan, in his first major role.
  • The female lead is played, respectively, by Angie Dickinson and Charlene Holt.
  • The deputy comic sidekick is played, respectively, by Walter Brennan and Arthur Hunnicutt.

John Wayne and James Caan in El Dorado (1967)

I just saw Rio Bravo again for the nth time yesterday afternoon. I will summarize it here because it is fresh in my memory. John Wayne and Dean Martin arrest Claude Akins for shooting an unarmed man. Unfortunately, scapegrace though he is, he is the brother of powerful rancher John Russell, who is determined to spring him before the U.S. marshal comes to town in six days. He besieges the jailhouse with his men and orders the musicians in his saloon to play El Deguëllo nonstop. This was a bugle call played by Santa Anna’s Mexican troops during the 1836 siege of the Alamo. Eventually, Russell’s men manage to kidnap Dean Martin. Wayne arranges for an exchange of Martin for Akins at a warehouse at the edge of town. The good guys prevail.

There is a third Howard Hawks film with a similar story, Rio Lobo (1970), which was the director’s last film. Although I love Hawks’s works, this is one you can skip.