The Hawks Report #2: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

He sat in the audience of High Noon, fuming.  He didn’t like the way Gary Cooper slunk through the town unable to muster any allies for his heroic stand against Evil.  He thought it was unmanly.  And after shaking his fist for a while and muttering oaths under his breath, he realized that he wasn’t accomplishing anything just venting his rage at the screen.  So he went to work, to make his own movie, as a deliberate rejection of High Noon.

When it appeared in theaters, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo claimed to be based on a short story by “B.H. McCampbell,” which makes it sound impressive.  In fact, “B.H. McCampbell” was Hawks’ daughter Barbara, and her “short story” was just some spitballing about how cool it would be if some gangsters had a bunch of  dynamite in crates and some good guys came along and shot up the crates to make them blow up.  Which is, indeed, very cool.  But that little bit of business aside, writers Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett were really tasked with making a manlier version of High Noon, with the same character types in the same situation but in which the sheriff doesn’t get all wishy washy and scared and whatnot, but just stoically goes out and kicks some ass.

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And that wasn’t enough to erase the taste of High Noon.  Hawks went and remade Rio Bravo about ten years later, as El Dorado (which omits the dynamite, and therefore drops the credit to Barbara).  And then he remade that as Rio Lobo (imagine if Hitchcock decided to try a third version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, just three years after the Jimmy Stewart/Doris Day one).  And if he hadn’t died I could imagine Hawks remaking it forever—the gift that keeps on giving.

But I’m going to focus on 1959’s Rio Bravo and its belated twin 1967’s El Dorado, in which much the same cast go about doing much the same stuff in the same place for the same overall effect.

Strangely, for all that the two projects were the same, there was one key way in which they differed.  Rio Bravo took half as much time to make, and cost a third of what El Dorado did.  In less than a decade, the industrial conditions of the movie business had changed enough that doing the exact same thing all over again suddenly was more difficult and less rewarding.

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Hawks never had much patience for the idea of “original stories.”  As far as he was concerned, ain’t no such animal.

“There are about 30 plots in all of drama,” he once said, “They’ve all been done by very good people.  If you can think of a new way to tell that plot, you’re pretty good.  But if you can do characters, you can forget about plot.”

Which of course meant that the whole point of doing this film, in any of its three iterations, was to get the main character right.  And that in turn meant getting John Wayne to play the lead.

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They’d worked together before, and knew each other’s style.  Hawks liked interesting characters who did interesting things, and never quite said what they meant.  That suited Wayne just fine.  Between them, they had a rule: Hawks told Wayne not to stress over every scene.  As long as he got three really crackerjack scenes in a film, and didn’t annoy the audience in the lulls in-between, then he’d be fine.  People would remember the really good stuff and forget everything else.

Wayne loved this notion, and apparently accepted it as a bona fide rule.  He would take each cast member aside, and sit them down to explain, “You see, the boss says…”

Meanwhile, Hawks told variations of it to everyone else—instructing his cinematographers that they could get away with royally screwing up one scene for every two that they made awesome.

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And if it seems an odd management style to go around telling your team they weren’t expected to bring their best game at all times, this was all part of Hawks’ strange genius.  He created an atmosphere like no other, that drew out of his cast and crew the kinds of loose, naturalistic work they never did anywhere else.

For example, Hawks was known for dialogue so fast paced that actors constantly spoke over one another.  This was a practiced effect that didn’t come easily to professional actors—trained as they were to hit their cues.  Hawks didn’t want anything that smacked of acting, and instructed his stars to talk over each other to undermine those actorly instincts.

He also constantly rewrote dialogue, which prevented the actors from ever learning their lines.

The more Hawks rewrote, the more he realized that the same basic framework could support an almost infinite variety of alternate approaches.  Just because one version of a scene happened to get filmed and shown to audiences didn’t make that the best version.  There’s always another way to do it.

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Which brings us to A Fistful of Dollars.  Clint Eastwood’s unnamed character has wandered into a town where there two opposing sides locked in endless war.  Both sides want his expertise and gunsmanship.  So he sells his services to both sides, playing each one against the other to his own (and the town’s ultimate) advantage.

You don’t need me to elaborate.  Surely you’ve seen it yourself.  If not, it’s on DVD and you can correct your oversight at your leisure.

A Fistful of Dollars came out in 1964.  The next year came its more intricate follow-up, For a Few Dollars More.  1966 brought The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which whipped the antiheroic escapades up into an epic flurry.  Sergio Leone had conquered the Western by now.  Legions of Italian filmmakers took to copying his lead, Clint Eastwood returned to Hollywood to continue the tradition on his own.  Westerns were now about antagonisms between opposing sides, but in which clearly drawn lines of good and evil were no longer possible.

But… in 1966, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly faced a competitor from the past—Howard Hawks’ El Dorado.  Hawks was a master of the old form, John Wayne the most renowned practitioner of the classical Western mode.  They were reluctant to cede the field to Leone’s amoral revisions.  El Dorado would be a deliberate counter-argument, a defiant insistence on the old ways.

There are two aspects to El Dorado worth paying close attention to in this regard.  First, there is almost no reason to remake Rio Bravo at all—it is a nearly perfect movie. Rio Bravo rocks.  So why remake it at all—and just 7 years after the original?  Well, because Hawks and Wayne have a point to make with it, that’s why.  And to do that, they’ve added something to Rio Bravo that makes El Dorado more than just a remake.

The addition occupies the first half of the movie—it’s only in the second half that El Dorado gets around to recycling script pages from Rio Bravo.  In the newly added prologue, John Wayne arrives in a town that is locked in endless war between two opposing ranchers.  Wayne is a hired gun brought in by one side to intimidate the other—and kill the pesky sheriff if need be.  But when he arrives, he realizes that the sheriff is his old friend Robert Mitchum, and the ranchers he’s supposed to intimidate are actually the good guys.  So Wayne rides back to confront his employer, Ed Asner, and patiently explain to him why he’s changing sides and refusing Asner’s money.

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Yup, it’s the set-up from Fistful of Dollars but reconfigured to re-insert the moral certitude missing from Leone’s version.  Instead of two equally loathsome opponents and a hired gun who manipulates them both, we have good guys versus bad guys and a hired gun with a conscience who not only chooses up sides but makes sure everybody knows his choice, and the reasons behind it.  Howard Hawks’ El Dorado is a defiant celebration of heroism in a popular culture increasingly nervous about such things.

I rewatched El Dorado while writing this, and what struck me most was that sense of heroism to John Wayne.  He’s not an unambiguously perfect character in either film, as I had once assumed.  He has flaws.  But those flaws do not extend to his unwavering sense of right and wrong.  The dramatic question isn’t whether he will do the right thing, but what doing the right thing will cost him.

In other words, Hawks’s penchant for remakes allowed him to not just make a number of wonderful Westerns out of a single idea, but to do so in ways that allowed him to comment first on High Noon, and then on Fistful of Dollars.

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14 Responses The Hawks Report #2: The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Posted By Jeffrey Ford : August 3, 2013 7:20 am

Keep them coming Mr. Kalat. The gift that keeps on giving.

Posted By Emgee : August 3, 2013 4:01 pm

Very interesting take on El Dorado; i wonder why he then decided to make Rio Lobo. A reaction to Eastwood’s American Westerns?

Posted By AL : August 3, 2013 4:40 pm

Aside from his brilliant output, what’s always intrigued me about Hawks is that it seems like he’s the only director who was as versatile as he was. His films jumped from one genre to another–and the results were always successful and excellent. Truly one of the Greats…

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 3, 2013 6:42 pm

I have a sneaking preference for “El Dorado” and its acknowledgement of its heroes’ aging and frailty, but it also figures into one of my all-time favorite movie-watching experiences. I was at a friend’s house and while flipping channels we came across “El Dorado.”

“Have you seen this? It’s a remake of ‘Rio Bravo.’”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, it’s got Robert Mitchum as Dean Martin and James Caan as ‘Mississippi’ instead of Ricky Nelson as ‘Colorado’ and, well, John Wayne as John Wayne. Just watch.”

So we watch it, and afterwards I explain, “And then John Carpenter went on to remake it AGAIN, as ‘Assault on Precinct 13.’”

So we flip channels again, and guess what movie is just starting on another channel?

I kid you not.

Posted By Doug : August 3, 2013 11:40 pm

It’s gratifying to hear that Hawks made movies in response to other movies-a artist with something to say, in my opinion, towers above those artistes who have nothing to say worth hearing.
Example-Robin Williams. His entire career has been built on his tired old “I’m outrageous!” schtick. His Fagin character in “August Rush” was the weakest part of that film. Even when he plays drama, it’s all about him.
One of my favorite Hawks moments was at the beginning of “Monkey Business” when Cary Grant, playing a scientist deep in thought, twice opens a door to come into the scene and twice we hear Hawks say, “Not yet, Cary.”

Posted By P. D. Bacon : August 4, 2013 12:51 am

Howard Hawks is one of my all time favorite directors. I’ve really enjoyed your blogs about him and hope you will write more. I think he has been an underrated and overlooked director. Several of his movies would be in my “desert island” collection.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 4, 2013 3:05 pm

“His Fagin character in ‘August Rush’ was the weakest part of that film.” Talk about damning with faint damns.

Posted By Emgee : August 4, 2013 3:11 pm

“I think he has been an underrated and overlooked director. ”
i think you’re in a minority of one thinking that. Few directors have had so much praise heaped on them as Hawks. And deservedly so, but underrated? Hardly.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 4, 2013 6:43 pm

Although Hollywood never saw fit to bestow any of his movies with an Oscar (an error they tried to remedy with an honorary lifetime achievement award), his films rarely fitting into that mold of “serious, prestige” films that generally get favored in awards season (the one exception: his nomination for “Sergeant York”).

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 4, 2013 6:45 pm

(Of course “York” did get the acting prize for Gary Cooper, and Hawks’ “Air Force” got a film editing trophy, but I speak of the top prizes for Hawks; Best Picture and Best Director always eluded him.)

Posted By Doug : August 4, 2013 11:31 pm

Richard, about “August Rush”-it’s all right as a fable, but if anyone else had acted in Williams’s role, the movie could have been better. See “Disco Pigs” from the same director, Kirsten Sheridan, to see what she could do with a strong story and better actors.

Posted By Bruce Reid : August 9, 2013 4:45 am

Movie years, as every film buff knows, can be tricky things. So it should be noted that El Dorado was filmed–in late 1965-early ’66–before Fistful of Dollars was released in America (early ’67). Which doesn’t discredit this theory, but makes it more likely to me that Leone and Hawks, without either influencing the other–were each bringing to old tropes (i.e., ripping of Kurosawa who’d ripped off Hammett) their own individual concerns and inimitable style.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 10, 2013 6:06 pm

What was a revelation to me in Rio Bravo was Dean Martin, with his portrayal of a guy who got his heart broken and turns to the bottle. Wayne needs him sober in order to have any successful outcome against the baddies that will be coming. That sub-story, performed so well by Martin, was a nice surprise for me.

Posted By robbushblog : August 14, 2013 11:06 am

El Dorado has long been one of my “go-to” movies. While it’s not as “good” as Rio Bravo, it is like comfort food to me and I’ve seen it many more times than Rio Bravo. I’ve never cared for Rio Lobo. That is the only John Wayne movie I can say that about.

No mention of the fact that A Fistful of Dollars was itself a remake?

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