Posted by David Kalat on August 3, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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