Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
'Shadow,' said he
'Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?'"
El Dorado is a classic 1966 Western directed by Howard Hawks, written by Leigh Brackett (who adapted the screenplay from the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown), and starring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James Caan.
Famed gunfighter Cole Thornton (Wayne) comes to the small Texan town of El Dorado, hired by carpetbagger cattle baron Bart Jason (Ed Asner), and stays at the hotel owned by Maudie (Charlene Holt). The town's sheriff, J.P. Harrah (Mitchum), is an old friend of Thornton and warns him off: Jason wants to start a war with his neighbors, the MacDonald family, over water rights, and the MacDonalds are the rightful owners. Taking the hint, Thornton rides out to Bart Jason's farm and tells him the deal is off because he does not want to go up against Harrah. In the meantime the MacDonalds have heard about Jason's intentions, and as Thornton passes their territory, he is shot at by one of the sons, Luke MacDonald. Cole Thornton shoots back in self-defense, hitting Luke MacDonald in the stomach; the pain is too much for the boy, who commits suicide with a revolver Thornton overlooked. He brings the body to the MacDonald homestead and tells the family what happened, but Luke's tomboyish sister Joey (Michele Carey) will have none of it and shortly afterwards bushwhacks him as he rides back to El Dorado. Thornton survives and overpowers Joey MacDonald, but it is discovered that her bullet is lodged against his spine and the local doctor is not good enough to extract it without risking his death or paralysis. So after he is healed enough to ride, he leaves town and his friends J.P. and Maudie, promising to return when he can face the MacDonalds again.
A few months later, Cole Thornton reappears in a small town on the Mexican border. In a local cantina he witnesses a young man, Mississippi (James Caan), approaching a group of tough guys and challenging one of them. The man is the last of four men who had killed an old gambler, his surrogate father, and Mississippi wants revenge. The man's boss, gunslinger Nelse McLeod (Christopher George), is intrigued and watches, because Mississippi does not carry a gun. In a duel across the table, Mississippi manages to kill his opponent with a thrown knife before he can shoot. Thornton then saves Mississippi's life by shooting the gun out of the hand of another of MacLeod's men who now wants to avenge his late comrade. Impressed by his quick draw, MacLeod offers Thornton the dead man's place in his outfit for his next job — a range war in El Dorado. It should not be too difficult, he says, the only person who could interfere is the local sheriff, and he now is too drunk to shoot straight. Thornton politely refuses.
Grateful towards his lifesaver, Mississippi follows Thornton who the next morning sets off to El Dorado to aid his friend and because of his blood debt towards the MacDonalds. He witnesses Thornton falling off his horse as the moving bullet partially and temporarily paralyses him, and offers his help. Since Mississippi is a completely useless shot, Thornton at first refuses, then sees to it that he buys a sawn-off shotgun. The two make it to El Dorado ahead of McLeod's group; Maudie tells them that J.P. came to his sorry state after falling for a bad woman passing through town. With the help of Mississippi's hangover recipe they manage to sober J.P. up somewhat, but they still have to face McLeod's and Bart Jason's men heavily outnumbered: a gunslinger in constant danger of being laid low by the bullet nudging his spine, a recovering drunk sheriff, a useless shot, and crusty deputy Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicutt)...
This film provides examples of:
- Action Girl: Josephine "Joey" MacDonald wounds Cole at the beginning and kills Bart Jason at the end.
- Actor Allusion: A belt buckle that Thorton sports in many scenes features the Red River D brand, an homage to John Wayne's first collaboration with Howard Hawks, Red River.
- Affably EvilNelse McLeod: Call it... professional courtesy.
- After Action Patch Up: After J.P. gets shot in the leg, he's tended to by the new town surgeon, Dr. Donovan who also examines the bullet pressing against Cole's spine.
- Happens again after the gang rescues one of the McDonald boys, during which both Bart Jason and Nelse McLeod are killed. Compared to the lightheartedness of the first, it is downright goofy. Highlights include finding out that the shot from Cole's newest wound came from Mississippi's shotgun and Cole and J.P. fighting about their crutches.
- Agonizing Stomach Wound: Cole accidentally shoots Luke MacDonald in the stomach, only seeing a man shooting at him from a ridgetop and not realizing it's a young teenage boy. Luke tells him that his pa told him that gutshot injuries mean the man is destined to die. Cole tries to help, but the minute his back is turned, Luke pulls out a pistol and shoots himself in the head to spare himself any more pain.
- Alas, Poor Villain: McLeod goes out giving Cole his regards, and Cole himself can't help feeling sad at having to kill him. Helps that Nelse has been a Noble Demon from the beginning.
- The Alcoholic: J.P. Harrah, when he is re-introduced.
- Amusingly Awful Aim: Alan Bourdillion "Mississippi" Traherne is hilariously inept at using guns. At one point, he tries to shoot a mook, and instead shoots a sign hanging above the mook, smacking the mook in the head with it.
- Artistic Title
- Awkwardly-Placed Bathtub: J.P. Harrah is forced to take a bath in the middle of the sheriff's office because there are hired guns in town waiting to kill him, and because he needs to keep watch on a prisoner the gunmen are after.
- Big Sister Instinct: Hurt Joey's brothers, and she'll try to kill you.
- Bits of Me Keep Passing Out: After being shot by Joey McDonald, Cole occasionally succumbs to screaming pain before his right arm goes numb. As explained by Dr. Donovan during the gang's first After Action Patch Up, the paralysis will last longer with each event until it eventually becomes permanent unless someone operates on it.
- Brick Joke: About halfway through, J.P., Cole, and Mississippi follow a man into Jason's saloon. J.P., upon noticing how nervous the piano player is, shoots the piano and the man hiding behind it. Much later, J.P. comments how bad the piano player is. Bull has to remind him it's because J.P. shot the piano.
- Broken Bird: Cole describes the type of woman J.P. tends to fall for as having "big sad eyes and a long, sad story." Subverted in that the girl that drives him to drink turns out to be no good at all, instead being a Jerk with a Heart of Jerk who runs off after breaking J.P.'s heart.
- Cattle Baron: Bart Jason.
- Combat Pragmatist: Cole Thornton.
- Acknowledged by Nelse McLeod at the end after Cole surprises him while rescuing Saul MacDonald. Once Bull signals, Cole uses the ruckus to shoot McLeod with a hidden rifle before falling off the wagon and engaging the other gunslingers.
- Deadpan Snarker: Just about everybody, at one time or another.
- Determined Homesteader: The MacDonalds.
- Driven to Suicide: Luke MacDonald shoots himself in the head instead of having to deal with a gutshot wound that will likely kill him slowly no matter what kind of medical care he receives.
- Establishing Character Moment:
- Bull wanders into town playing a loud and brassy rendition of "The Girl I Left Behind Me" on his tin horn.
- Mississippi wanders into the middle of an open restaurant, singles out a hired gun for the murder of his old friend at a table of other hired guns, and challenges him to a duel without any guns of his own. He kills the man with a hidden knife.
- Even Evil Has Standards: McLeod makes it a point to rebuke the Mook who helped murder Mississipi's friend. "It really shouldn't have taken four of you...."
- Fake Shemp: Most of the scenes showing John Wayne running were performed by a double.
- Fanservice: Charlene Holt as Maudie, and more specifically Maudie in corset and stockings, a costume she wore in promotional images. In the movie, she briefly wears it under an untied bathrobe when receiving Cole in the middle of the night, but quickly draws the robe closed when she realizes he's brought company.
- Farmer's Daughter: Joey is a more tomboyish version, dressed in jeans and carrying a rifle, which she is more than capable of using.
- Fauxreigner: Mississippi doing a horrid impression of a Chinese Launderer to sneak up on a thug.
- Foreshadowing: The Swede tells Mississippi a story about a gunfighter who had lousy eyesight who tended to shoot in the general direction of where he heard the other guy coming from. He shot a particularly noisy piano player. When J.P. Harrah and his posse go into a bar looking for a wounded gunman they were tracking, the trail of blood leads behind a piano being played by a very nervous and off-key piano player.
- Genre Blind: Mississippi has no experience with guns or gunmen, though he does learn quickly with Cole's reluctant tutelage.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: McLeod has a scar over his left eye.
- The Gunfighter Wannabe: Mississippi.
- The Gunslinger: Cole Thornton and Nelse McLeod.
- Handicapped Badass:
- Cole Thornton. Joey puts a bullet in his back in revenge for Cole killing her brother. It only bothers him sometimes, but when it bothers him, it bothers him hard.
- Nelse McLeod has a big scar on his face and is blind in one eye.
- Has a Type: Maudie starts to tell Cole about the girl J.P. got involved with and he stops her, finishing the description himself, giving an indication he tends to fall for the same type a lot.
- Hero of Another Story: In any other movie, Mississippi's quest to avenge his father figure, a task which takes him two years and four duels where he has to use a throwing knife in gunfights since he doesn't know how to use a gun properly, would be the main story. In this one, we meet him at the end of his self-appointed task and instead he's regulated to Cole's sidekick and the position of Comic Relief Butt-Monkey.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Cole and J.P.
- Hideous Hangover Cure: It includes gunpowder.
- The Hilarity of Hats: There is a Running Gag concerning the other characters' opinions of Mississippi's choice of headwear:Bull Harris: ...might have anyhow if I wasn't tryin' to figure out what that fella's got on his head.
Mississippi: It's called a hat.
Bull Harris: Well, I'll have to take your word for it.
- Hoist by Their Own Petard: The night Cole meets Mississippi, Milt and Pedro (two of Nelse McLeod's hired hands) lie in wait to shoot the first two when they step out onto the street, only to give up when Cole sends McLeod out first. Cole and Mississippi have a second run-in with Milt and Pedro and force Milt out into yet another trap, who panics and dies riddled with bullets. Cole's bad back gets the better of him before Pedro gets sent into the grinder, so Mississippi slays him with a shotgun instead.
- Hollywood Darkness: The only way Jason's mook could have been deceived for a second by Mississippi's Paper-Thin Disguise.
- Hometown Nickname: Mississippi and The Swede. We learn Mississippi's real name, many times, but it's just too long for anyone to bother remembering.
- I Can Still Fight!: Cole's right arm is paralyzed from the bullet against his spine and J.P. was shot in the leg and needs crutches. Despite these limitations they come up with a plan to rescue Saul MacDonald from McLeod and Jason.
- I Have Your Wife: In the later part of the film, Jason and McLeod try to blackmail Kevin MacDonald by holding his son Saul hostage. This not only brings Saul's sister Joey up in arms, but also his wife.
- I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: During the After Action Patch Up, the town's surgeon comments to Cole that a wound in Cole's leg was caused by a shot from a shotgun and asks who was using the shotgun. Mississippi, looking embarrassed, confesses to the action, to which Bull quips that the safest place to be when Mississippi fires his gun is behind him.
- Ironic Echo: Well don't you think I know a girl? The first time said by Cole while he and Mississippi are traveling. The second time by Mississippi after he stopped for a chat while they were tracking down a group of gunmen. Granted, she was telling him where to find them.
- Literary Allusion Title: The title refers to the poem Eldorado (1849) by Edgar Allan Poe, which is recited by Mississippi at various points in the film. The hero of the poem is an ageing knight who loses his strength searching for the legendary city of gold, while the hero of the film is an ageing gunfighter whose strength is sapped by his life-threatening wound.
- Living MacGuffin and Hostage for MacGuffin: The villains capture Cole Thornton and offer to trade him for Bart Jason, who is in jail awaiting trial for murder.
- Love Interest: Leading lady Maudie is implied to be in love with Cole, despite their difference in age. She volunteers immediately to take care of him when he's wounded, is openly dismayed when she learns about Cole's departure at the last minute, and accompanies him into lethal gunfight territory during the finale.
- Mysterious Informant: The Mexican girl sitting by her window who tells Mississippi that the gunmen, he, Cole, JP and Bull are after are hiding in the church.
- Never Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight: Downplayed. Mississippi can kill with throwing knives, but he makes a point of hiding them behind his back inside his jacket and surprising his enemies in the middle of a duel while they think they have the advantage.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The local doctor sends a messenger to warn the MacDonald family that Col has come to town to work for their ruthless enemy, Bart Jason. Cole decides not to take Jason's job, but the news of his arrival causes a tragic and avoidable gunfight between Cole and the youngest MacDonald son.
- Noble Demon: McLeod is this in spades. He makes no attempt to defend the henchman that took part in the murder of Mississippi's friend, and is generally shown to be quite an affable sort of guy with lines he won't cross.
- Noodle Incident:
- When Cole and McLeod are first introduced, McLeod describes himself, Cole and another man as the fastest gunfighters in the world. McLeod mentions the third man is dead, and that's the last we hear of him.
- Subverted with Cole's insistence that there's a "fourth", which originally passed over, but later explained to be J.P. Harrah, who has since lost his status after an encounter with a wandering petticoat.
- Oh, Crap!:
- After Mississippi kills a man in his Establishing Character Moment, a mook attempts to kill him, only for the gun to be shot out of said Mook's hand by Cole Thorton. Thorton then taunts the man to pick up the gun and draw. Before the mook can prove he is Too Dumb to Live, MacLeod forbids him from doing so saying that he can't afford to lose another man. When the Mook complains of his boss' lack of faith in him, MacLead correctly identifies Thorton for who he is. The Mook doesn't say anything, but the look on his face is more than enough.
- J.P. also manages to show one when he finds out Jason hired MacLeod, giving an already-drunk J.P. a need for more whiskey.
- Only a Flesh Wound: Averted and Played for Drama twice.
- Cole is heedlessly attacked by Joey's little brother, who gets gut shot in turn, a crippling and agonizing wound that leaves him begging for Cole to finish him off.
- Joey herself shoots Cole in the back; while he recovers, the bullet remains lodged against his spine and occasionally causes him painful spasms and his right arm to go numb.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Mississippi, because he's got more name than most characters have bullets.
- Overly-Long Name: Mississipi's real name is Alan Bourdillion Traherne.
- Please Get Off Me: Mississippi sneaks up on and tackles a mysterious gunman hiding out across the street from The Sheriff's office, discovering it to be Joey MacDonald, who, true to form, trades a few words before asking him to get off. He replies that he's actually pretty comfortable before getting socked for his trouble.
- Posthumous Character: Johnny Diamond, an old riverboat gambler who raised Mississippi and was killed during a card game a few years before the story takes place. We learn a lot about him from Mississippi who wears his funny-looking top hat as a tribute.
- Pretty Little Headshots: Luke's head looks remarkably intact when his family takes it off his horse for having shot himself in the head. Possibly due to the censorship of the time, it doesn't even look like he has an entrance wound, let alone an exit one, unless he put the pistol in his mouth.
- Prisoner Exchange: JP is forced to release Jason to McLeod and his men in exchange for Cole whom they captured.
- Professional Gambler: Mississippi by schooling. He does card tricks to pass the time during The Siege.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Alan. Bourdillion. Traherne.
- A Real Man Is a Killer: Subverted, in his introductory scene, Mississippi kills the last of four men responsible for the death of his mentor. With a knife. In a gunfight. He gets nothing but flak from everyone else for most of the rest of the movie because of his relative inexperience.
- Reckless Gun Usage: During the mid-movie hunt for some of Jason's men, J.P. is juggling his guns around and pointing them at Bull and Cole while he's arguing with them. This is directly after Cole has just loaded J.P.'s revolver. Somewhat justified in that J.P. is still coming off a miserable binge and could either be drunk or hungover, but you'd think Cole or Bull would tell him to stop it.
- Retired Outlaw: In a town a couple days of riding from El Dorado, the sheriff and deputy are old friends of Cole, who recalls how the two were running from a posse the last time he saw them.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Mississippi was on one that lasted two years to avenge the murder of his mentor Johnny Diamond. He found and killed the last of the four men responsible when he met Cole.
- Running Gag:
- J.P. Harrah can never seem to remember meeting Mississippi, probably because he was too schnockered to stand most of the times they are introduced.
- Several different people dropping by while J.P. is taking what is widely stated to be a well-needed bath and giving him bars of soap. Adding to his indignity, the sheriff's office lacks a private place to bathe, so he's basically in the middle of the room as people parade through.
- Mississippi, in general, has a series of running gags. Of particular note is everyone's reaction to his hat and no one being able to say his real name correctly.
- Sawed-Off Shotgun: What Mississippi winds up with after he is shown to be incredibly inept with a regular handgun.
- Self-Plagiarism: The scene in which Thornton pushes one of McLeod's mooks through a door to be shot by his own men echoes a similar one from the first Hawks/Brackett collaboration, The Big Sleep.
- The Sheriff: J.P. Harrah.
- The Siege
- Signature Headgear: Mississippi wears a very distinctive and instantly recognisable hat.
- Stocking Filler: Maudie spends part of one scene with nothing over her legs besides a pair of black stockings.
- Tap on the Head: Mississippi
- Time Skip: The movie jumps six months ahead after the first act.
- Tomboy and Unkempt Beauty: Joey (Josephine) MacDonald.
- The Western
- Worthy Opponent: McLeod considers Cole Thorton this. Cole more or less reciprocates to the dying McLeod after shooting him, acknowledging that he took McLeod by surprise to ensure the job gets done.
- Would Hit a Girl: Mississippi. At first because he didn't know she was a girl. Afterwards because she hit him first, but not to the point of trying to hurt her.
- You Killed My Father: A slight variation as the man Mississippi was avenging wasn't his father but the man did raise him.
- "Over the MountainsOf the Moon,Down the Valley of the Shadow,Ride, boldly ride,"The shade replied,—"If you seek for Eldorado!"