The Killer Elite (1975)

killer_elite_movie_posterWith 1969’s The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah helmed his masterpiece, a classic film, one of the best westerns ever made, and one of the most influential movies ever made in general. The problem? Though he directed some gems after ‘Bunch,’ he often got trapped by the legend of The Wild Bunch, often trying to live up to the reputation. Here’s 1975’s The Killer Elite, an uneven but entertaining Peckinpah flick.

Working together for a security firm affiliated with the CIA, Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are good friends who have worked together as partners for years. Protecting an important defector, Hansen betrays Locken, shooting him in the knee and elbow before killing the defector. The horrifically crippling wounds force Locken to undergo serious surgeries and intense rehab, some of it through karate that he picks up quickly. Walking with a cane and a slight limp, Locken is brought back out of retirement to protect an important Asian politician on the run from an assassination squad. Leading the squad? Of course, it’s Hansen.

When I first really dove into Peckinpah’s filmography – an impressive, schizophrenic 14 movies – this 1975 action thriller was one of the last I was able to track down. The cast, the story, the potential Peckinpah chaos, it sounded like a winner. It’s a mixed bag in the end. Good but not great, wandering story and odd humor, and the cast is wasted at times. The potential is there, especially with a story ahead of its time foreshadowing government corruption (it was the 1970s) and its portrayal of bottom-dollar mercenaries. It’s a mess at 122 minutes, but there’s enough that works in the end.

James Caan and Robert Duvall together? It’s Sonny and Hagen back together again! Well, sorta. One betrays the other, filling him with thoughts of murderous revenge. The early scenes introduce the partnership/friendship, 2 guys with a history with a language and rhythm all to themselves. Unfortunately Duvall disappears for about an hour and then briefly comes back. Badly underused. Caan is solid, the revenge-seeking, stoic mercenary who must crawl back up from his lowest point. Caan could do a part like this in his sleep, but it’s pretty cool seeing him go all-out in the fight and karate scenes, using his cane as an accessory.

In the supporting cast, Arthur Hill and Gig Young are the firm’s supervisors, tasking their agents with one dangerous mission after another. Putting together a team to work with, Caan’s Locken chooses Mac (muttering Burt Young), a retired wheelman, and Miller (Bo Hopkins), a slightly off weapons expert. Mako plays Yuen Chung, the Asian politician looking to get back to Asia with some divisive plans. Not much backstory for anyone here, but Young and Hopkins (a Peckinpah regular) are having a lot of fun. The movie is at its best when it focuses on the agents, the mercenaries, even when they’re on opposite sides going toe-to-toe.

Mixed in with all this potential is an odd, out of left field choice to use ninjas as a villain. Not martial arts fighters….literally ninjas wearing black outfits and masks and using swords and throwing stars. It plays at times like a spoof, but it isn’t. The Locken karate subplot is one thing, but come on. It tries to be philosophical, thoughtful, questioning, but really, we just want ‘Elite’ to be fun. It is in its quicker moments, but too often goes back to that disjointed feeling of a story filled with potential that never quite figures out where it wants to go. At one point in the finale, all the action stops for a mano-a-mano fight as Caan and Young make fun of the fighters. It doesn’t play well.

You figure with a Peckinpah flick, you’re getting some good action. Eh, kinda. The final showdown is very cool, filmed on a mothball fleet of retired US Navy ships. But then the ninjas attack (poorly) and the slow motion takes over. It’s cool, but you can’t help but notice how cheesy it plays out, how disjointed it feels with all the twists and turns and betrayals. One last thing, the San Francisco filming locations are always nice to look at, and the score from Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding is excellent.

 The Killer Elite (1975): ** ½ /****


The Hills Run Red (1966)

the_hills_run_red_iWhen you think of spaghetti westerns, you think of a lot of names of American actors who traveled to Europe for a chance at stardom (or at least bigger stardom), names like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. There were plenty of lesser-known stars though, like Thomas Hunter in 1966’s The Hills Run Red.

 It’s late in the Civil War and two Confederate soldiers, Jerry Brewster (Hunter) and Ken Seagull (Nando Gazzolo), have robbed a Union payroll and are on the run. About to be captured, they split a deck of cards to see who will stay behind and buy time, Jerry losing out. He begs Ken to take care of his family until he can get back to them. Captured by Union cavalry, Jerry spends 5 years in jail serving a brutal sentence. Upon his parole, he finds out that his wife is dead and his son is missing. What about Ken’s promise? His former friends has used the money they stole to start up a huge ranch, changing his name in the process. Jerry’s revenge starts NOW!

In the mid 1960s and into the late 1970s, over 600 spaghetti westerns were made (with some variations here and there). There are some classics, some good to really great entries, and some bad to downright awful ones at the bottom of the list. ‘Hills’ falls somewhere in between. It isn’t bad, it isn’t particularly good, but you know what? It’s entertaining in an oh so bad way. I don’t think it’s an insult to say a movie is fun, and that’s what you get here.

It’s hard to come down too harshly on this 1965 spaghetti from director Carlo Lizzani. The genre had started to take off with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, but many entries still had that feel of an American western. ‘Hills’ is pretty cheap with a small cast and a small budget. The score from the master himself, Ennio Morricone, isn’t his best, but even just okay or pretty good Morricone is excellent. Give it an extended listen HERE. Not too many familiar locations to mention.

Not much in the way of star power here. In a short career, Hunter only did about 15 movies with some TV parts mixed in. I’d only seen him before in 1968’s Anzio in a supporting part. The verdict here? For one, his dubbing is really atrocious (not his fault). His lips are moving where the words aren’t! Also, his Jerry Brewster is a tortured anti-hero, a cowboy desperately seeking revenge. Hunter’s acting range is him literally SCREAMING his rage and disappointment. It’s actually laughable to watch. Interesting character with potential, but Hunter struggles in an over-the-top performance.

As for his villainous counter, Henry Silva also hams it up, chewing the scenery like his life depended on it as Mendez, Ken’s right-hand man and brutal enforcer. Decked out in all black, Silva rattles off Spanish in almost incomprehensible fashion, laughing maniacally basically every scene. The weird part? He’s the bad guy…but never does anything too bad, except for the maniacal laughing. Dan Duryea plays a mysterious supporting part that looks like he accidentally boarded a plane to Spain and walked on-set. Spaghetti western beauty Nicoletta Machiavelli is wasted as Mary Ann, Ken’s naïve sister. Playing the not so intimidating Ken Seagull (not Segal), Gazzollo leaves little impression, letting Silva do the heavy lifting.

 Fueled by revenge, but not much in the way of story, ‘Hills’ is an odd one. I’ve watched it 3 times I believe, and each time, I keep thinking ‘Meh, this isn’t very good.’ The shootout at the end is laughable, Hunter and Duryea running around an abandoned town dispatching bad guys like a Tom and Jerry episode. The twist in the final scene is unnecessary and comes out of left field. But then again, everything here feels a bit disjointed and kooky! Not good, not bad, just stupidly fun and entertaining.

 The Hills Run Red (1966): **/****

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

sons_of_katie_elder_1965John Wayne is my all-time favorite. He is, was and always will be the coolest. By the mid 1960’s, he was still one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and around the world. His lifestyle — and smoking packs a day — took its toll though, with production on one of his movies being delayed for several months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One lung and two removed ribs later, Wayne came back with a vengeance, turning in one of his most underrated performances in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder.

It’s been 10 years since gunfighter John Elder (Wayne) has returned home. When he gets word that his mother, Katie, has died, John heads home to Clearwater, Texas. There he finds his three brothers, Tom (Dean Martin), a gambler/cardplayer, Matt (Earl Holliman), a hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest brother and a college student. John and his brothers find out how much things have changed, not only the circumstances that led to Katie’s death, but their father’s death some 6 months earlier. The family ranch is now owned by an aspiring businessman/rancher, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory). John intends to find out what happens, righting any wrongs that may have been done on the family, but mostly, he wants to honor Katie and leave the Elder name in a positive way.

This was an interesting turning point in Wayne’s career. The health scare woke the Hollywood legend up in a way. From this point on, Wayne finished his career with more fan-friendly roles. He knew what his fans wanted and delivered. They weren’t always the deepest or most hard-hitting roles — there were exceptions, The Shootist, True Grit, The Cowboys — as Wayne surrounded himself with family, friends and plenty of familiar faces. As for ‘Sons,’ I maintain that it belongs in the list with the trio of movies listed above. It is one of my favorite westerns, not just a John Wayne western.

A lot to recommend here. It’s an old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys western, but there’s more to it (in a big way). From director Henry Hathaway, ‘Sons’ blends familiar western elements and mixes in family drama and a bit of a murder mystery. Now that’s a unique premise! The filming locations in Durango, Mexico are a gem, a beautiful backdrop with cinematographer Lucien Ballard turning in one gorgeous scene after another. Oh, and music composer Elmer Bernstein delivers one of his best, most unheralded scores, including a highly memorable main theme. Give it a listen HERE.

I liked this movie as a kid, but I’ve loved it as an adult. Why’s that? I love the idea of family here, brought to life by Wayne, Martin, Holliman and Anderson. Their chemistry is impeccable. It’s simply perfect, brothers who haven’t seen each other in years and must get back together, reminiscing, bonding, arguing and fighting. Some of the movie’s best scenes are the quartet of brothers sitting at their Mom’s house talking…and arguing and even starting a fist fight. Katie ends up being an off-screen character too, a woman you feel like you’ve met by the end of the movie. Family is a key element in countless westerns, but it’s rare it felt this authentic from beginning to end.

It’s easy to shrug and say ‘Oh, that’s Wayne just playing the Duke.’ It’s fair depending on the role you look at. When he did it right though, it was just so perfect. He’s the iconic western hero — flawed but upright, fighting for what’s right, loyal and honest. His John Elder makes it look easy. Martin was always an underrated dramatic actor — just look at his other pairing with Wayne, 1959’s Rio Bravo — and he doesn’t disappoint here as Tom, always ready with a quip or a line or a gimmick. Holliman isn’t flashy, just solid as Matt, the brother who went straight. And Anderson holds his own as young Bud, no easy task with the talent around him.

A pretty cool cast backs up our brothers. James Gregory does what he does best, playing a smarmy, backstabbing villain with George Kennedy as his hired gun, Curley, Dennis Hopper as his bookish son, and Rodolfo Acosta as another enforcer. Martha Hyer plays Mary, a young woman who knew Katie well and tries to tell her boys what an impressive woman their Mom really was. Paul Fix and Jeremy Slate are excellent as Sheriff Billy, a calming, longtime peace officer and Deputy Ben, a hot-headed youngster trying to make his way. Plenty more familiar faces including Strother Martin, John Doucette, John Qualen, Rhys Williams, Sheldon Allman and even Karl Swenson playing dual roles.

At 121 minutes, ‘Sons’ is far from action-packed. There’s actually only one major set-piece, one major gunfight, set at the famously beautiful El Saltito waterfalls in Mexico. The beauty of it all? You don’t need the action. The story builds and builds, the tension growing as we learn the truth of what’s happened. It’s just a gem of a western that doesn’t always get its due. It should though. ‘Sons’ is an underrated classic.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): ****/****


Top 10 of 2017

Man, the years go by quicker and quicker. It feels like I was just doing my Top 10 movies list for 2016 (a pretty weak year overall), but here we sit as a far-stronger 2017 flew by. I had 31 movies in consideration for the Top 10, so it was a tough job to chip away to get down to 10. And a reminder, these are any movies I hadn’t seen before, not just films released during 2017.

10. When In Rome (1952)


It’s getting more difficult to track down older movies that 1. I haven’t seen and 2. I want to see. I loved this one. Van Johnson plays a priest traveling to Rome for the 1950 Holy Year with thousands of other priests, but he meets a crook (Paul Douglas) on the run…who steals his identity. Filmed in black and white with filming locations in Rome, this is just a nice, sweet, well-told story.

9. Black Hawk Down (2001)


I read the Mark Bowden novel in high school but never tracked down the movie. (Graphic war violence gets to me at times). The true story of a disastrous American mission to capture a warlord in Mogadishu in 1993 is very moving, uncomfortable and definitely stuck with me. A deep cast leads the way. A story and film that stuck with me long after watching it.

8. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)


I’m a huge fan of the original Planet of the Apes series, so I was naturally a little wary of the rebooted franchise. I was wrong. These movies were excellent. This capper to the trilogy is a gem, a combination of war movies, apocalypse flicks, road trip stories and so much more. An absorbing story is aided by amazing special effects with Andy Serkis stealing the show as Caesar, the highly-intelligent leader of the apes.

7. Gifted (2017)


More proof that it doesn’t need to be a huge blockbuster flick to be good. A family story about a brilliant young girl (Mckenna Grace) being raised by her uncle (Chris Evans). Should she grow up in a more defined lifestyle? Reminded me a little bit of a modern Frank Capra film, but with a moving story and a cool cast, this was probably my most pleasant surprise of 2017.

6. Logan (2017)


Hugh Jackman shot to immense stardom as the most famous of the X-Men, so it was pretty cool to see the character transformation over all the films, capped here with the last one. Given a hard R-rating (VIOLENCE and BLOOD!) in the vein of Deadpool but handled far more seriously, Jackman delivers a career-best performance as an aging Logan with Patrick Stewart similarly stealing the show. Superhero movie with darkness and depth.

5. Kong: Skull Island (2017)


Movies like this are why I love actually going to the movies. Big, loud, smart, fun and damn entertaining. A reboot (along with the Godzilla movies) of a familiar character from film history with a King Kong origin story (of sorts). That said, this is a Kong unlike we’ve ever seen. Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman star in this action movie that was a hell of a lot of fun, using the mid 1970’s as a backdrop.

4. Dunkirk (2017)


Director Christopher Nolan does a World War II film? Um, yes, count me in! Filmed in typical, unique Nolan style with a shifting timeline, almost minimal dialogue and strong reliance on music (a Hans Zimmer score) and visual, this was a doozy of a film. Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh, Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance round out an impressive ensemble cast. Highly moving story, incredibly visceral moviegoing experience.

3. Forbidden Planet (1956)


If you’re looking for classic science fiction, the 1950’s are a good place to start. Here’s another classic, awesome to watch and also to see the profound impact ‘Forbidden’ has had on countless sci-fi and horror flicks since. More impressive? It’s a rare movie where the twist, the payoff is worth it in a big way. Smart, SMART twist. Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis lead the cast.

2. Hoop Dreams (1994)


My full-time job is a sports writer/editor. I love a lot of sports, but basketball and baseball are my favorites. This ahead of its time documentary tells the story of 2 African-American teenagers in Chicago during their high school and college careers as they pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA one day. Fascinating, uncomfortable and unsettling, funny, dramatic and sad, this is a must-see film.

1. John Wick Chapter 2 (2017)


Keanu Reeves returns as the impeccably cool hitman, John Wick, looking to dispatch more bad guys in impeccably staged action scenes. Loved the first one, and this sequel takes it up a notch or 2 or 10 or 189. So profoundly fun to just go along for this ride in a world that keeps building up, a world of hit men, killers, codes and principles. Reeves is so perfectly cast with Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Common, Laurence Fishburne and many others providing key supporting parts. And that ending? Oh my. Can’t wait for Chapter 3.

Other movies in consideration: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, A Matter of Life and Death, Kingsmen: The Golden Circle, Baby Driver, School Ties, Diabolique, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Catch up with previous Top 10 lists; 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.

Hopefully we have a great 2018 of movies in store!


Stalag 17 (1953)

Well, there are just certain movies I should have reviewed by now. I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions how much I like prisoner of war movies like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai, but the first one to really put the WWII sub-genre came along in 1953, Stalag 17, a classic that doesn’t always get its due.

It’s nearing Christmas in 1944, and a breakout is planned in Stalag 17, a German prisoner of war camp deep in Germany for Allied fliers. The night of the escape, the two prisoners making the attempt are machine gunned outside the barbed wire fence, leaving the prisoners they left behind in Barracks 4 to question what’s going on. How did the Germans know details of the escape? The prisoners look to J.J. Sefton (William Holden) as the culprit, a possible stoolie who trades and bargains with the German captors for all sorts of luxuries from eggs to cigarettes to booze. Maybe Sefton has been giving away all their secrets for his own benefit, but Sefton knows otherwise. He may be a chiseler, but he’s not a traitor. The problem is simple though, he can’t prove it. Who among the other prisoners in Barracks 4 is the real culprit? He’s going to need an answer and need it quick before his bunkmates decide they’ve had enough of him for good.

From director Billy Wilder, ‘Stalag’ is a gem of a film, one of my favorites going back to when I was a kid. It was based on a Broadway play that had 472 showings over its run. The stage-based play roots are obvious, but in a good way. Filmed in a very appropriate, very effective black and white, ‘Stalag’ is set almost entirely in Barracks 4 as the story develops, Christmas approaching ever quicker. The only departures we have from the barracks are outside into the camp compound. We never leave the camp, the entire story based in Stalag 17. The crowded, claustrophobic barracks becomes another character with the bunks almost bumping into each other, the windows with the frost and ice sticking to the panes, the clothes hanging from lines hung from wall to wall. Franz Waxman‘s uncredited score is solid as well if underplayed, Johnny Coming Marching Home a key component of the story as well.

One of three nominations the movie received went to William Holden as Barracks 4 chiseler and general trouble-maker J.J. Sefton. Nominated for his part in Sunset Boulevard but not winning, Holden got a much-deserved win here, taking home the Oscar. More impressive? He was going up against Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Holden brings this character to life, a less than sympathetic but still appealing individual who’s decided to make the most of his prisoner of war status. He’s going to live in comfort, and if that means dealing/trading with his German captors, then so be it. It’s not an issue until his bunkmates decide he’s the traitor giving the Germans all their secrets. This is where Holden’s acting steps up a notch, a desperate man now fighting for his survival instead of his personal comfort. Not often remembered as one of his best, but it’s a goodie.

Holden’s performance comes as part of a very solid ensemble cast that doesn’t feature a ton of A-list stars, instead turning to a group of familiar character actors. Start with Robert Strauss as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Harry Shapiro, the barracks cut-ups, Richard Erdman as Hoffy, the barracks chief, Peter Graves as Price, barracks security, Neville Brand as Duke, the hothead, and Gil Stratton as Cookie, Sefton’s mousey assistant, and Robinson Stone, Robert Shawley, and William Pierson rounding out the bunch. Don Taylor co-stars as Lt. Dunbar, a prisoner in transit who comes under SS questioning, Jay Lawrence his impersonating, smart-mouthed traveling companion, Sgt. Bagradian. The comedy between Animal and Harry gets to be a little much at times, Bagradian’s impersonations a little forced, but as a collective whole it’s a good, strong, deep group of interesting characters.

It is hard to watch this without seeing the obvious influences some 10-plus years later with TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. Director Otto Preminger stars as Von Scherbach, the Stalag commander, an old-school German aristocrat and gentleman while Sig Ruman plays barracks guard Sgt. Schulz, a VERY obvious influence on John Banner’s famous Sgt. Schultz character in the TV show.

An episodic story that clocks in at exactly 120 minutes, there really isn’t a slow moment in Wilder’s Stalag 17. In directing his film, Wilder decided to shoot chronologically so that way the cast and crew wouldn’t know the twist — the identity of the barracks traitor — until the end of filming. The first hour or so of the movie blends the drama and comedy nicely setting up the second half of the movie. As the barracks traitor story comes to the forefront, that’s when ’17’ is at its best. The last 30 minutes are pretty perfect, Holden’s Sefton starting to piece the clues together in a great couple scenes, Wilder’s talent fully on display in shooting style, while the actual reveal and the finale are spot-on. This is a movie that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, but it sure deserves it. One of my favorites.

Stalag 17 (1953): ****/****


3 Godfathers (1948)

3_godfathers_1948_posterThe late 1940s and into the 1950s was an important stretch for John Ford, the legendary director turning in some of his finest work. His cavalry trilogy — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande — are the movies he’s most often associated with, but it was during the same stretch that Ford directed one of his best westerns, 1948’s 3 Godfathers, a flick that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Three outlaws, Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.), have robbed the bank in the tiny, usually peaceful town of Welcome, Arizona. They hightail it out of town with a saddlebag full of gold, the town sheriff, Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), managing to shoot their water bag in a chaotic chase across the desert. Now, it’s a chess match for water, and who can go longer without it, the outlaws or the sheriff and his posse. Out in the desert, Bob, Pedro and William stumble across a pregnant woman alone and about to give birth. She dies soon after, leaving the trio in survival mode…and now caring for an infant. Without any horses, can they get him to safety?

There’s an aura often when you watch a Ford western, especially in this stage of his career. Trademark, signatures, whatever you want to call them, but they’re easily visible. Though ‘Godfathers’ has some darker moments, it’s one of Ford’s relatively lighter westerns. There’s drama but humor to balance it out. And there’s no other way to say it, this is cheesy, downright corny at times. My point though? It doesn’t matter. It’s a gem.

Not filming in his usual Monument Valley, Ford films instead in Death Valley, a sparse, dangerous stretch of land if there ever was, but an oddly beautiful land. Filmed in Technicolor, it’s a visual stunner, even the colors from 1948 popping to life. The skies, the clouds, even the costumes all leave a lasting impression. Add a familiar but memorable score from composer Richard Hageman (a frequent partner in Ford movies), and that halfway decent cast, you’ve got a winner.

This was actually the third retelling of the basic story, Ford even filming a silent version in 1919 (it was remade again in 1936, a solid flick all-around). What holds it together — however cheesy/corny/overdone at times — is the casting. A 40-year old Wayne steals the show as Bob, the no-nonsense leader of our little “gang” who’s long rode with Pedro and looks out for Kearney (AKA The Abilene Kid) as he goes on his first job. Armendariz and Carey Jr. match him step-for-step, chemistry to burn as first just survival is the key, but then so much more and something bigger when the infant’s survival is at stake. No matter whether it’s the lighter, comedic moments or the harsher, darker realities setting in, I absolutely love the 3 Godfathers characters. Basically the three nicest “bad guys” ever in a western.

Ford fills out his supporting cast with more than a few familiar faces from his Stock Company (character actors who were in many Ford movies). Ward Bond is excellent as Buck “Perley” Sweet, Welcome’s sheriff who unintentionally befriends the outlaws before realizing who they are, Mae Marsh playing his wife. Mildred Natwick is excellent in one quick scene (but a highly memorable one) as the Mother who as she’s dying asks the three outlaws to be godfathers to her infant son, who she names Robert William Pedro after them. Other familiar faces include Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, and in his first credited role, Ben Johnson. It obviously wouldn’t be the last we heard of him in the western genre.

What may surprise some viewers here that ‘Godfathers’ become a variation of Three Men and a Baby meets an American wild west version of the Three Kings story from the Nativity story. So….yes, it is a bit of a Christmas movie! The 3 godfathers must travel to New Jerusalem in hopes of saving the baby, often looking to a bright star for guidance. There’s some faith, some religion, some good and evil along the way, and a story with some surprising twists in its last third. It is cheesy at times and may drive some viewers away, but it’s always been a favorite. Definitely worth a watch.

Ford actually dedicated the film to his longtime friend and star, Harry Carey (Carey Jr.’s father), who had died the year before in 1947. His son more than holds his own, stealing some scenes, especially when he sings Streets of Laredo to the baby as a lullaby. Any-hoo, give it a watch!

3 Godfathers (1948): *** 1/2 /****


El Dorado (1967)

el_dorado_28john_wayne_movie_poster29With 1959’s Rio Bravo, director Howard Hawks turned in one of his finest films in a career that spanned 6 decades. How good is it? Over 11 years, Hawks remade the film twice, first with 1967’s El Dorado and then 3 years later with 1970’s Rio Lobo. Here we go with the first remake, El Dorado.

A hired gun with a reputation for a fast draw, Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has agreed to sign on with a powerful rancher, Bart Jason (Ed Asner). He doesn’t know exactly what the job entails, ultimately deciding to not take the job when he realizes Jason is trying to drive a fellow rancher out by any means necessary. In the process, Thornton takes a bullet in his back that causes him to lose all feeling in his right arm. Months pass though, Thornton eventually ending up back in the valley. He decides to join the effort against Jason, joining his old friend, JP Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who’s retreated into a bottle after a woman left him. Now, Thornton, Harrah and a motley crew must band together to stop Jason from taking over the valley.

Sound familiar? It should, ‘Dorado’ a loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, made 8 years earlier. It isn’t spot-on, but it’s pretty dang close, a sheriff and a ragtag band forced to band together to keep their town going against a power-hungry rancher. Sure, there are tweaks here and there, but let’s call it what it is, a remake. The same filming locations — notably Old Tucson — are even used! The analysis is pretty cut and dry. If you liked ‘Bravo,’ you’ll like ‘Dorado.’

Though they were both in The Longest Day’s massive cast, Wayne and Mitchum were never on-screen together (that I remember). So naturally, the pairing of the two Hollywood legends is enough reason to watch any movie. There are flaws here in ‘Dorado,’ but let me tell you, the casting ain’t one of those flaws. Wayne and Mitchum make it look easy from the word ‘go,’ just two pros doing their thing and playing effortlessly off each other. Thornton is the hired gun (a bit of a darker part for Wayne) with Mitchum as the drunken sheriff, good with a gun but down on his luck. Naturally, there’s history between the two men, former rivals turned longtime friends. Just go for the ride with these two. You won’t be disappointed.

According to a Mitchum biographer, Hawks approached him with the idea of casting him opposite Wayne. Mitchum asked about the script/story to which Hawks said ‘Nah, no story. Just characters.’ It’s a dead-on description. Yeah, there are bad guys, things to be dealt with, but that story (I use the word lightly) is sorta kinda not really something that ties one scene to another. It’s 126 minutes long, but that second hour feels much longer, seemingly watching the same scenes over and over again. There isn’t much energy, little momentum, and then it just sorta ends. It’s never bad, just not as good at it could have been. ‘Bravo’ is 14 minutes longer, but it crackles, always on the right path.

So no story? Better be some damn good characters then! A very young James Caan more than holds his own with Wayne and Mitchum, playing Mississippi, a young gambler who’s proficient with a knife…but can’t shoot a gun to save his life. A strong part with some good laughs along the way. Charlene Holt and Michelle Carey are the love interests, two strong women and not your typical damsels in distress. Christopher George is underused as Nelse McLeod, a gunslinger with a code, his scenes with Wayne’s Thornton excellent. It’s just two guys sizing each other up. Also, Arthur Hunnicutt plays Arthur Hunnicutt, um, I mean Bull, an old Indian fighter who’s always talking.

Also look for Paul Fix, Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Jim Davis and Robert Donner in supporting parts. Johnny Crawford also makes a quick appearance as a young rancher’s son. Any Rifleman fans will get a kick out of seeing young Mark McCain grown up a bit!

The first hour is excellent, the second hour just not able to keep up. There are so many plates spinning — a lot of characters — that it all gets muddled. The villains are weak at best, and there’s very little action. Still, the star power — Wayne, Mitchum and Caan especially — makes it worthwhile. Hawks does focus almost entirely on characters over story, and while risky, it pays off. A very good western, but not a great one. The theme song, well, you’ll be singing it for days. Listen HERE.

El Dorado (1967) ***/****