Wayne, Mitchum on the trail to El Dorado

Big John Wayne made quite a few movies during his lifetime, counting among his onscreen portrayals a myriad of professions, including Navy skipper, Marine flier, police detective, heavyweight boxer, airline pilot, government agent, sea captain, and football player. But “The Duke” was unquestionably at his best when sporting a cowboy hat and brandishing a six-shooter – and sitting tall in the saddle.

In 1967, John Wayne teamed with another movie tough guy, Robert Mitchum, in a slam-bang western called El Dorado. Directed by the legendary Howard Hawks, El Dorado would prove to be one of Wayne’s most memorable Western films.

El Dorado was based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1960.  Producing the movie for Laurel Productions and Paramount Pictures was Howard Hawks, with Paul Helmick serving as associate producer. Other production credits included Leigh Brackett as screenwriter, Harold Rosson as cinematographer, John Woodstock as film editor, Carl Anderson and Hal Pereira as art directors, Robert Benton and Ray Moyer as set decorators, and Nelson Riddle in charge of original music. Singing the film’s title song was George Alexander accompanied by The Mellomen, the latter comprised of Bill Cole, Bill Lee, Thurl Ravenscroft and Max Smith.

Heading the cast were Wayne as Cole Thornton and Mitchum as Sheriff J.P. Harrah. Also along for the ride were James Caan as Alan Bourdillion Traherne (aka “Mississippi”), Charlene Holt as Maudie, Paul Fix as Dr. Miller, Arthur Hunnicutt as Bull Harris, Michele Cary as Josephine “Joey” MacDonald, R.G. Armstrong as Kevin MacDonald, Edward Asner as Bart Jason, Christopher George as Nelse McLeod, Marina Ghane as Maria, Robert Donner as Milt, John Gabriel as Pedro, Johnny Crawford as Luke MacDonald, Adam Roarke as Matt MacDonald, and Jim Davis as Jim Purvis, among many others.

Interestingly, after reading the script for El Dorado (which was actually a remake of 1959’s Rio Bravo), Wayne had asked to play the role of Sheriff J.P. Harrah. That part, however, went to Mitchum, who was brought into the production by Howard Hawks himself on the promise that it contained some “great characters.”

El Dorado was filmed from Oct. 11, 1965 to Jan. 28, 1966. Principal location sites were Kanab, Utah, and Tucson, Arizona. The former is a favorite site for Hollywood Westerns, counting among its many clients such film productions as The Deadwood Coach (1924), Overland with Kit Carson (1939), Fort Apache (1948), Kansas Raiders (1950), Mackenna’s Gold (1969), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Dead West (2005).

The plot

El Dorado opens with a montage of Old West paintings executed by Olaf Wieghorst, who plays the part of  gunsmith Swede Larsen in the film. The action begins with Sheriff J.P. Harrah strolling into a saloon, where he asks the bartender the whereabouts of the man who owns the spotted Appaloosa horse hitched outside.

“Hi, Cole,” the sheriff says, greeting the mystery man whose back is to him while he washes up in a pan of water. The big man turns around, only to be met by Sheriff Harrah’s scowling face and a rifle menacingly pointed at his chest. Harrah tells the man – Cole Thornton – to keep his hand away from his gun.

The sheriff and Cole Thornton go way back – before the Civil War. Harrah has heard that Cole has been hired by a local rancher, Bart Jason, in his dispute with the Kevin MacDonald clan. If that is so, Harrah says, then Cole has taken a dangerous path which leads right through him and the law. After Harrah explains the true situation involving Jason and the MacDonalds, Cole agrees to end his business relationship with the former.

Cole rides out to the Jason place, where he returns the remaining expense money the rancher had given him. Jason makes the comment that maybe Cole has been scared off by Sheriff J.P. Harrah, also wondering aloud when hired guns got so choosy. “I’m paid to risk my neck,” Cole replies. “I’ll decide where and when I’ll do it. This isn’t it.”  

On his way back, Cole is bushwhacked by young Luke MacDonald, who fires at him from his perch near a rock. Cole reflexively returns fire, wounding the boy in the stomach. Apparently convinced that he’s about to die, the “gut-shot” Luke unholsters his pistol and finishes himself off before Cole can act. Cole then returns the body to Kevin MacDonald, the boy’s father, who accepts the gunfighter’s version of what happened to his kid.

Kevin MacDonald’s headstrong daughter, “Joey,” isn’t so forgiving, as she later ambushes Cole. After shooting the gunfighter, she checks the body, only to discover that Cole is still alive. Cole springs up at the girl and takes her by surprise, tossing her rifle into a nearby pond.

Back in town, the wounded Cole is patched up by Dr. Miller as the sheriff and a woman friend named Maudie look on. When Cole wakes up, the doctor tells him that the bullet is lodged near his spine. If he tries to remove it now, things could go south in a hurry. The small-town doc then advises Cole to see one of those new, big city doctors, who might know more about safely extracting the slug put there by Josephine MacDonald.

Now healed from his gunshot wound, Cole announces that he’s headed to Sonora, where he knows some folks who own a silver mine. Maudie tells him to come back soon, and he kisses her goodbye.

It’s now six to seven months later, and Cole rides into Sonora. He heads to a local cantina for some grub. Entering minutes later is gunfighter Nelse McLeod and  three of his boys. Following them in is a man sporting a funny derby, who identifies himself as Alan Berdillion Terhane, better known as Mississippi. Terhane then confronts Charlie, one of McLeod’s gunmen who, with three others, he says, killed a friend of his. Mississippi tells Charlie that he has tracked down and killed his three cohorts, now it’s his turn. Mississippi, who is not wearing a gun, then orders Charlie to stand up. Charlie obliges and draws his gun, whereby Mississippi responds by unsheathing a knife from his back and planting it in the chest of the gunman. A friend of Charlie then draws down on Mississippi, with Cole Thornton intervening, shooting the man’s hand before he can kill Mississippi.

Nelse McLeod is impressed, even more so when Cole Thornton identifies himself. McLeod then buys Cole and Mississippi a drink, telling them that he’s headed to El Dorado where a bitter range war has come to a head. McLeod’s employer, he says, is Bart Jason. When informed by Cole that McLeod will have to tangle with Sheriff J.P. Harrah, the scar-faced gunfighter replies that Harrah is now an ineffective drunk, a shadow of his former self.

The men leave the cantina, with Cole telling McLeod to go out first. Once outside, McLeod instructs his men to come out of the shadows. Cole and Mississippi then collect their guns, telling them that they can pick them up at the sheriff’s office later.

Cole rides out alone, where he later falls off his horse after the bullet inside him presses on a nerve. Mississippi, who was following him, comes to his aid. Cole says he’s headed to El Dorado to help his friend, Sheriff J.P. Harrah. Mississippi wins the right to accompany Cole after reciting the poem “El Dorado” by Edgar Allan Poe. On the way, Cole gives Mississippi a lesson in shooting, but the greenhorn proves so inept when wielding a six-shooter that the gunfighter pronounces the situation as nearly hopeless.

In Cuervo, Cole and Mississippi visit gunsmith Swede Larsen, who fixes Mississippi up with a double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun which fits in a side holster. It’s the perfect weapon of choice for a man who can’t shoot worth a darn.

The two arrive in El Dorado at night, where Cole visits his lady love, Maudie. She gives Cole the lowdown on J.P. Harrah, who hasn’t drawn a sober breath since his disappointing encounter with a woman.

At the jail, Cole sees for himself just how far J.P. has fallen. Grabbing a bucket of water, Cole wakes up the drunken sheriff who’s passed out in one of his own cells. Unshaven and disheveled, J.P. is a sorry sight, prompting Cole to observe: “I’m lookin’ at a tin star with a…drunk pinned on it.” J.P. then punches Cole, who retaliates with a well-placed shot to the head with a pan, sending the sheriff into dreamland once again.

In order to sober up the drunken J.P., Mississippi puts together a concoction comprised of mustard and gunpowder. They then force it down J.P.’s throat. The potion apparently works, for after J.P. takes a drink he is immediately sick to his stomach.

Trouble is brewing in El Dorado when both Bart Jason and the MacDonalds come to town on a Saturday. When asked by J.P. why he’s come to El Dorado, Cole replies that he owes the MacDonalds for having shot their boy in self-defense.

A shaky J.P. heads to the saloon where he picks up a bottle of whiskey. Meeting with Bart Jason inside is gunfighter Nelse McLeod and his boys. J.P. slinks away with his bottle, later telling Cole that they were laughing at him back at the saloon. Cole replies that people have been laughing at their sheriff for a long time now – J.P. was just too drunk to notice before.

When one of the MacDonald boys is shot in the street, Cole, J.P., Mississippi and an ancient deputy sheriff named Bull Harris pursue the perpetrators. After learning that the shooters are holed up in a church, Cole and company go on the offensive. Cole dispatches two of the bad guys, while Mississippi injures a third when he fires his shotgun at the fleeing man. Mississippi’s blast hits a sign, which in turn knocks his human target to the ground. The limping man, however, is only stunned and escapes.

A riled J.P. Harrah now heads to the saloon where he plans to get both the shooter of the MacDonald boy and the man who hired him. While J.P. comes through the front, Cole and Mississippi cover the back, where they eventually get the drop on Nelse McLeod and his boys, who are sitting at a table inside. J.P. then flushes out the fugitive who is hiding behind the piano, filling him with lead when he tries to shoot his way out of the saloon.

With the limping gunfighter dead, J.P. now directs his attention to the man who hired him and his cohorts – Bart Jason. In a fury, J.P. tells Jason to laugh now, then makes his point by hitting the rancher with his rifle. He’s stopped from killing the man by Cole. A bloodied Jason is then hauled off to jail, but not before he offers Nelse McLeod $1,000 to get him out.

Mississippi surprises Joey MacDonald, who’s hiding across the street waiting to get a clear shot at Bart Jason. She’s taken to the jail, where she freely admits that Jason was her target.

Cole and Mississippi are then deputized by Bull. While on patrol, the two new deputies are attacked out in the street. Running out into the fracas is the sheriff, who catches a bullet in his right leg. Dr. Miller is then summoned, with a younger physician, Dr. Donovan, accompanying him. While he’s there, Dr. Donovan examines Cole, telling him that the bullet in his back from Joey MacDonald is a continuing threat to his well-being.

When Cole and Mississippi are shot at again, they follow their assailant into the saloon where Nelse McLeod and his men are gathered. Inside, Cole suffers a crippling spasm, which renders his gun hand useless. Mississippi is whacked over the head while Cole is taken prisoner by McLeod’s boys.

Later, a hog-tied Cole is dumped into the entranceway of the jail, where he is covered by five of McLeod’s hired guns. A deal is proposed: Cole’s life for the release of Bart Jason. J.P. Harrah agrees to the arrangement, and Jason is allowed to walk out the door.

When Jason and his men kidnap Saul MacDonald over a land dispute, J.P. and his deputies load up two wagons and attempt to storm their saloon stronghold. Cole gets the drop on McLeod, shooting him while Bull and company engage the others. A dying McLeod then confronts Cole, telling the famed gunslinger that he didn’t give him much of a chance in their showdown. Cole replies that McLeod was just too good a gunfighter to let him have that kind of opportunity.

After the gun battle, Dr. Donovan removes buckshot from Cole’s leg –  friendly fire which had come from Mississippi’s gun. After his leg heals, Cole says he will maybe agree to let Dr. Donovan operate on his back.

The picture ends with Cole Thornton and J.P. Harrah limping down the street of El Dorado on their respective crutches. J.P., who will retain his job as sheriff, says the town will be quiet now, since a “troublemaker” like Cole will be leaving shortly.


El Dorado was first screened to theater exhibitors on Nov. 15, 1966. The movie was later released in Japan on Dec. 17, 1966, and then in the United States on June 7, 1967.

El Dorado is a tightly directed, humorous, altogether successful Western, turned out almost effortlessly, it would seem, by three old pros: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Howard Hawks,” reported Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (Aug. 4, 1967).

“For people who like well-made, entertaining movies with suspense, violence, horses, colorful characters, lots of shooting and a few pretty girls, El Dorado is about the most entertaining Western to turn up this year.”

In its review of June 29, 1967, titled “Wayne, Mitchum Root ‘n’ Toot in El Dorado, a Crisp Western,” The New York Times said: “Team John Wayne with Robert Mitchum. Add guns, horses and the frontier, plus director-producer Howard Hawks. The result is El Dorado, a tough, laconic and amusing Western that ambles across the screen as easily as the two veteran stars.

“Mr. Mitchum is simply wonderful as a whisky-sodden sheriff, who snaps to, pistols barking, and settles a range feud, aided by his old pal, no slouch with a gun either. The same goes for nearly everybody else, ladies included, among them Charlene Holt and Michele Cary, James Caan, Paul Fix, R.G. Armstrong and Christopher George are equally nimble, but it is grizzled old Arthur Hunnicutt who nearly steals the picture from the two stars. Nobody could. Call it a draw.”

El Dorado, which received no Academy Award nominations,  grossed a respectable $6 million during its first run in the United States. For comparison sakes, contrast that figure to other John Wayne Westerns of the era: McLintock! (1963, $4.523 million), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965, $6 m), The War Wagon (1967, $5.933 m),  True Grit (1969, $14.250 m), and The Undefeated (1969, $4 m).


Producer-director Howard Hawks, who later worked again with John Wayne in what would be his last picture, Rio Lobo (1970), died at age 81 in Palm Springs, Calif., on Dec. 26, 1977. In 1975, Hawks (Scarface, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, Red River, The Big Sky, Hatari!) was presented an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to world cinema. Other deceased production members from El Dorado include writer Leigh Brackett (1915-1978), composer Nelson Riddle (1921-1985), cinematographer Harold Rosson (1895-1988), and film editor John Woodstock (1916-2000).

John Wayne, whose last film was 1976’s The Shootist, died of lung and stomach cancer at age 72 in Los Angeles on June 11, 1979. Other deceased cast members include Robert Mitchum (1917-1997), former Miss Maryland of 1956 Charlene Holt (1928-1996), Paul Fix (1901-1983), Arthur Hunnicutt (1910-1979), and Christopher George (1929-1983).


Selling prices for El Dorado memorabilia include a first edition of Harry Brown’s 1960 novel The Stars in Their Courses (the basis for the movie) in fine condition at $30; the first 1961 English edition of Brown’s novel in fine condition at $100; a one-sheet poster in very good-fine condition at $183.50; a complete set of eight lobby cards in fine+ condition at $203.16; a three-sheet poster in very good condition at $67 and an insert poster in good condition at $60.

El Dorado is available on both VHS and DVD.

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