The Late Film: Red Line 7000 and El Dorado

Red Line 7000

In introducing El Dorado at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Andrew Sarris bemoaned  Howard Hawks’ future. He peered silently at the sparse crowd, and declared that the turnout was unsurprising. The recent class he offered on Hawks at Columbia University, he told us, was the least popular of all his auteur courses. Where have all the Hawksians gone? Well, I’m right here, and BAM tried to draw them out in their recently concluded program, “The Late Film”, which screened Red Line 7000 and El Dorado on consecutive nights, a crash course in late Hawks and a lesson about what cultures decide to preserve and forget.

Buried on a double-bill with the youth-baiting Beach Ball,  Hawks’  Red Line 7000 completely tanked upon its el doradorelease in November of 1965. It quickly disappeared from popular culture’s memory, despite the best efforts of Hawksians like Robin Wood. Production on his follow-up, El Dorado, began in October of the same year, the fastest turnaround between projects in his career (principal shooting on Red Line ended in April of ’65).  This thinly-veiled Rio Bravo remake was a box office hit upon its release in 1967, and has been a staple of cable channels and home video re-packagings ever since (the latest DVD came out last Tuesday). Red Line 7000 has remained incredibly difficult to see, aside from the ever-present fuzzy bootleg videos.

The forgetting of Red Line 7000 was enabled by Hawks himself, who slagged the film over multiple interviews. In 1971: “I don’t like it.” In 1974: ” I didn’t like it, I thought it was awful.” In 1975: “I think it’s lousy.” His main complaint has to do with the narrative construction, which tries to weave together three different romances:

Just when you get people interested in one story, you jump to another story. Just when they’re interested in that, you jump to another. By that time they’ve forgotten the first one. They’re all mixed up and they say, “The hell with this thing!”

The nominal lead is James Caan as Max Marsh, an ace driver with deep neuroses regardingred line poster5 the purity of his girlfriends. He’s both attracted and repulsed by Marianna Hill as Gabrielle, an uninhibited racing fan who recently broke up with another driver, Dan McCall (James Ward). After their amicable parting, McCall pursues Holly (Gail Hire), a superstitious, mournful type who blames herself for the deaths of her three previous lovers. The third story is more tangential: that of the tomboy daughter of the crew chief (Laura Devon as Julie) in love with the strapping young driver Ned (John Robert Crawford).

Robin Wood called Red Line 7000 “the most underestimated film of the sixties”, partly because of the structure Hawks so derided:

The fact that the Ned/Julie relationship is so little integrated in the main action is not really the structural fault it at first appears. The other two relationships are parallel: in both, a strong, mature partner (Dan, Gaby) helps someone whose development has been arrested (Holly, Mike); the threads of plot continually interweave. The Ned/Julie relationship offers a contrast, and Hawks keeps it separate. Here, both partners are immature.

I believe Hawks and Wood are both right, that the film is both “lousy” and “underestimated”. The structure has interest, as Wood indicates, but it doesn’t have the performers to put life into its motions. Actors are incredibly important to Hawks, as so much of his script is improvised or written on the set with their participation. Without their engagement, his lived-in community of professionals becomes a cold line-up of earnest-sounding mannequins.

Gail Hire is the most embarrassing here, her labored rasp a caricature of Bacall’s rumbling bass in To Have and Have Not. It’s so ridiculous the audience I saw it with broke out into laughter, and I couldn’t blame them. James Ward and John Robert Crawford  are just blond-haired, blue-eyed blanks, showing none of the charisma or camaraderie essential to Hawks’ work. As Todd McCarthy states in his exemplary biography, he “labored to make the story and the actors come alive. Because of his case members’ limited experience, Hawks got much less creative input from them than he normally liked, and he had to deal with burgeoning egos.”

The film only comes alive in the Caan-Hill sequences, which show the combative sparks of his greatest romances. Hill’s insouciant sexuality baffles Caan’s repressed straight-arrow, and their mutual attraction can only be consummated on the race track. In a beautiful sequence where action replaces exposition, their combustible sexuality is revealed when he lets her take a spin around the track. Through his studied direction, she flawlessly takes the turns, until she spins out joyfully at the end, laughing violently. She tells him it was like “taming a lion”. Having to control Caan’s unstable boy is her dangerous task for the rest of the film. Hidden like a pearl for eager auteurists, this scene both confirms Hawks’s directorial hand and stands as a reminder of what the majority of the film was missing.

el dorado 2El Dorado is something else entirely. It has the feel of a valediction, a re-telling of Rio Bravo (1959) that takes aging as it’s central theme. John Wayne returns to the Hawks fold as Cole Thornton, an old gun-for-hire who rejects a job from corrupt landowner Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Robert Mitchum plays the town’s alcoholic sherriff, J.P. Harrah (the Dean Martin role in Rio). James Caan and Arthur Hunnicut round out the group of ragtag heroes, who try to protect the MacDonalds, a local farming family, from the predations of Jason’s acquisitive clan. Mortality is brought to the fore immediately, when Cole shoots down a MacDonald kid out of self-defense. Mortally wounded, the boy kills himself to end the pain. This random act haunts the rest of the film – it leads to the bullet lodged in Cole’s back and in J.P.’s leg, persistent reminders of their physical degradation.

If it is not as perfect as Rio Bravo – one certainly misses the presence of Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson – for me it is as equally affecting, especially when viewed in the context of Hawks’ and Wayne’s career. As they slowly pirouette through the well-worn jokes one more time (Dry out the drunk, patronize the kid, prod the old coot), it is tinged with sadness – the bullet pressing closer to Cole’s spine with every move. It’s impossible to overstate the grace of John Wayne’s performance here, the hint of grief he exudes when Caan is searching for a gunman, the stoic regret he portrays after he kills the MacDonald kid, and the luxurious slowness in which he moves, whether simply sliding off a horse or leaping off a carriage, he carries the weight of his age with him. It’s a beautiful performance. There’s no grand send-off at the end, just a couple beaten old men, wobbling down the main drag and soaking up every last light of the moon.

0 Response The Late Film: Red Line 7000 and El Dorado
Posted By Michael J. Anderson : May 26, 2009 3:04 pm

Here too…

From a professional standpoint, I’m not sure what to make of Hawks’s lack of popularity at the moment: my selfish impulse is to take heart with a clearer field (I am working on the director myself at the moment). Plus, its hard to think that such a trend could be permanent; Hawks is just too good.

Great piece on the two films. I absolutely agree with you that Redline 7000 is both ‘lousy’ (almost) and ‘underestimated’; and you hit it on the head when you point out its casting deficiencies. One could practically locate the totality of lesser Hawks pictures by locating those in which there are inadequacies in terms of its performances, with Gail Hire being very near the top of the list. Still, for very Hawksian reasons so to speak, this is a very interesting film.

Also, you have definitely succeeded in making me want to revisit El Dorado a.s.a.p.

Posted By Michael J. Anderson : May 26, 2009 3:04 pm

Here too…

From a professional standpoint, I’m not sure what to make of Hawks’s lack of popularity at the moment: my selfish impulse is to take heart with a clearer field (I am working on the director myself at the moment). Plus, its hard to think that such a trend could be permanent; Hawks is just too good.

Great piece on the two films. I absolutely agree with you that Redline 7000 is both ‘lousy’ (almost) and ‘underestimated’; and you hit it on the head when you point out its casting deficiencies. One could practically locate the totality of lesser Hawks pictures by locating those in which there are inadequacies in terms of its performances, with Gail Hire being very near the top of the list. Still, for very Hawksian reasons so to speak, this is a very interesting film.

Also, you have definitely succeeded in making me want to revisit El Dorado a.s.a.p.

Posted By Jenni : May 27, 2009 7:20 am

I just watched Rio Bravo for the first time as an adult. I vaguely remember watching John Wayne westerns as a kid on Saturday nights, NBC showing them a lot, and my Dad watching them. Anyhow, I enjoyed RB a lot. I was surprised how well Dean Martin did with his role as the alcoholic deputy, trying to dry out. What I wondered about was the casting of Ricky Nelson. I can’t imagine that Howard Hawks wanted a teen singing idol to be in his movie. Do you know if the studio twisted his arm into letting Nelson be in Rio Bravo? I can imagine some studio hotshot telling Hawks that Nelson would draw in that coveted movie goer, the teenager.
Thanks for any light you could shed on my theory.

Posted By Jenni : May 27, 2009 7:20 am

I just watched Rio Bravo for the first time as an adult. I vaguely remember watching John Wayne westerns as a kid on Saturday nights, NBC showing them a lot, and my Dad watching them. Anyhow, I enjoyed RB a lot. I was surprised how well Dean Martin did with his role as the alcoholic deputy, trying to dry out. What I wondered about was the casting of Ricky Nelson. I can’t imagine that Howard Hawks wanted a teen singing idol to be in his movie. Do you know if the studio twisted his arm into letting Nelson be in Rio Bravo? I can imagine some studio hotshot telling Hawks that Nelson would draw in that coveted movie goer, the teenager.
Thanks for any light you could shed on my theory.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : May 27, 2009 7:06 pm

Jenni-

According to Todd McCarthy’s biography of Hawks, Ricky Nelson was hand-picked by the director. Hawks was acquaintances with Ozzie Nelson, asked to see some episodes of “Ozzie and Harriet” (which Ricky Nelson starred in), “liked what he saw, and signed the boy up.” He also considered Michael Landon and Frank Gifford…

Hawks liked to think of himself as a crowd-pleaser, and also had a penchant for inserting character-revealing musical sequences in his films. So Ricky was definitely his choice, with no arm-twisting needed. I think Nelson gives a rather charming, laid back performance, in any case.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : May 27, 2009 7:06 pm

Jenni-

According to Todd McCarthy’s biography of Hawks, Ricky Nelson was hand-picked by the director. Hawks was acquaintances with Ozzie Nelson, asked to see some episodes of “Ozzie and Harriet” (which Ricky Nelson starred in), “liked what he saw, and signed the boy up.” He also considered Michael Landon and Frank Gifford…

Hawks liked to think of himself as a crowd-pleaser, and also had a penchant for inserting character-revealing musical sequences in his films. So Ricky was definitely his choice, with no arm-twisting needed. I think Nelson gives a rather charming, laid back performance, in any case.

Posted By Jenni : May 27, 2009 10:09 pm

Thanks for the answer, and I am glad my theory was wrong!

Posted By Jenni : May 27, 2009 10:09 pm

Thanks for the answer, and I am glad my theory was wrong!

Posted By Al Lowe : May 28, 2009 12:47 am

When you are an “old movie” buff like me you often get asked the standard question:
What is your favorite movie?
You try to answer it by saying you have a lot of favorites but some relentless interrogator tries to pin you down.
If I have to pick, then I answer “To Have and Have Not.” Hawks is my favorite director. He has stayed popular with me.
Bogart, Wayne, Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe made some of their best films for him and it is amazing how he was able to tailor his talents to fit those unique personalities.
One interrogator was surprised that I didn’t choose Citizen Kane due to my newspaper background. Well, of course, I like Kane – and Welles – and have seen it many times, but if I am picking a movie so that I can sit back, relax and enjoy, it is probably going to be a Hawks film.
El Dorado and Rio Bravo are among the first VHS films I bought.

I have my own theory on the casting of Nelson in Rio Bravo and I don’t really disagree with you and McCarthy.
The part was that of a young, decent gunslinger. Somebody had to be cast and Nelson does a fine job. The question is: Why does the script have such a character in it?
If you go back to 1957 Hollywood must have been shaken up quite a bit when Pat Boone and Elvis Presley were among the top 10 box office stars. Hollywood then tried to adapt and rock idols were suddenly sharing scenes with filmdom’s biggest names. James Darren joined Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn on their mission to blow up the Guns of Navarone. James Stewart’s daughter has a romance with Fabian in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. And Ricky Nelson is among the fastest draws in the West in Rio Bravo. As I said, he does good work but his casting sometimes causes people to write off the picture.

Other questions and a suggestion:
When was this BAM Hawks tribute? How is Andrew Sarris doing? How old is he? He changed a lot of thinking on films some 40 years ago and I think he deserves his own article, if you can somehow get him to agree to an interview.

Posted By Al Lowe : May 28, 2009 12:47 am

When you are an “old movie” buff like me you often get asked the standard question:
What is your favorite movie?
You try to answer it by saying you have a lot of favorites but some relentless interrogator tries to pin you down.
If I have to pick, then I answer “To Have and Have Not.” Hawks is my favorite director. He has stayed popular with me.
Bogart, Wayne, Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe made some of their best films for him and it is amazing how he was able to tailor his talents to fit those unique personalities.
One interrogator was surprised that I didn’t choose Citizen Kane due to my newspaper background. Well, of course, I like Kane – and Welles – and have seen it many times, but if I am picking a movie so that I can sit back, relax and enjoy, it is probably going to be a Hawks film.
El Dorado and Rio Bravo are among the first VHS films I bought.

I have my own theory on the casting of Nelson in Rio Bravo and I don’t really disagree with you and McCarthy.
The part was that of a young, decent gunslinger. Somebody had to be cast and Nelson does a fine job. The question is: Why does the script have such a character in it?
If you go back to 1957 Hollywood must have been shaken up quite a bit when Pat Boone and Elvis Presley were among the top 10 box office stars. Hollywood then tried to adapt and rock idols were suddenly sharing scenes with filmdom’s biggest names. James Darren joined Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn on their mission to blow up the Guns of Navarone. James Stewart’s daughter has a romance with Fabian in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. And Ricky Nelson is among the fastest draws in the West in Rio Bravo. As I said, he does good work but his casting sometimes causes people to write off the picture.

Other questions and a suggestion:
When was this BAM Hawks tribute? How is Andrew Sarris doing? How old is he? He changed a lot of thinking on films some 40 years ago and I think he deserves his own article, if you can somehow get him to agree to an interview.

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