It takes a lot to stand out when you’re standing between Robert Mitchum and John Wayne. And it surely isn’t easy when you’re also standing in front of the venerable Howard Hawks. But this was the position 25-year-old James Caan found himself in when he took on the role of Alan Bourdillon Traherne, otherwise known as Mississippi, in Hawks’ 1967 Western, El Dorado. Though Hawks was nearing the end of his filmmaking career (this would be his penultimate movie) and Caan was just at the start of his (following two features and about five years of extensive television work), they were each entering the project under similar circumstances. Indeed, it was their shared experience on the disappointing Red Line 7000 (1965) that left them both wanting. It may have been a personal letdown for Caan, but that film’s poor reception wasn’t a deal-breaker as far as his prospects were likely to continue. For the aging Hawks, though, he was eager to get back on his feet, and back in saddle.
Written by the tremendously talented, gender-defying Leigh Brackett, loosely based on Harry Brown’s novel “The Stars in Their Courses,” El Dorado is a not-so-subtle reworking of Hawks’ 1959 masterpiece-among-masterpieces, Rio Bravo (which wasn’t what Brackett intended—her initial adaptation was rejected by Hawks who wanted what she derisively dubbed “The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again”). There is a similar scenario hinging on a range war and the contested imprisonment of a vital villain; there is the shaky but stalwart collaboration between two long-time partners, one of them now a struggling alcoholic; and there is the rag-tag team assembled to uphold the law and have some fun in the process. El Dorado stars John Wayne as gunslinger Cole Thornton (essentially a reprisal of Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo), Robert Mitchum as sheriff J. P. Harrah (the boozy variant of Dean Martin’s character from the earlier film), and Arthur Hunnicutt as deputy sheriff Bull (a grizzled if less goofy riff on Walter Brennan’s spirited Rio Bravo curmudgeon). There are also the primary antagonists—rancher Bart Jason (Ed Asner) and his hired gun, Nelson McLeod (Christopher George)—and not one but two definitive Hawksian women—the mature, seen-it-all-before saloon owner Maudie (Charlene Holt) and the beautiful young spitfire Joey (Michele Carey). Then, taking over the juvenile, state-named reins from Ricky Nelson’s Colorado, there is Caan as Mississippi.
First appearing some 27 minutes into the picture, Mississippi (he’s only referred to as the ostentatious mouthful Alan Bourdillon Traherne for laughs) enters the film’s fray by way of his own peripheral vendetta. For two years, he has been tracking four men responsible for the death of his friend and mentor Johnny Diamond. With three down and one to go, Mississippi arrives at a bar, where Thornton happens to be lingering, and approaches the subject of his mission, who happens to be riding with McLeod. Yielding a knife with tremendous proficiency, a proficiency he most assuredly does not have with a gun, Mississippi achieves his goal, earning the appreciative respect of Thornton and the suspicious scrutiny of McLeod.
After slowly easing in to enact his revenge—Caan moving with a leery hesitation, with judicious steps and careful glances—Mississippi proves his mettle and defies his outward reserve. From that point forward, he proceeds under the tutelage of Thornton, conveying an amiable balance of reverence and I’m-my-own-man individuality. Mississippi may decry the insinuation after Thornton warmly refers to the youngster as “son” (“I am not your son!” he retorts), but there is no denying the paternal dynamic nor the impression of actorly torch-passing. In reality, the brazen Caan could sometimes be contentious with Wayne and Hawks, but he has a natural, highly appealing rapport with his senior costar. Next to Wayne, the stature of anyone is likely to dither, so befitting the corresponding deference of his character, Caan can’t help but visibly concede to the celebrity pillar with an awe-struck esteem, literally positioned behind Wayne in most of their joint static shots. Yet he stands near the intimidating Hollywood luminary with remarkable comfort, and under Hawks’ sure direction, Caan convincingly expresses the swiftly evolving poignancy of their relationship, as is subtly seen when Mississippi assists the injured Thornton onto his horse. No words are said, no favors are asked; he simply steps in to help. An early intimacy and trust is established, and though the tenderfoot has to endure variations on the “he’s a little green” dismissal, light digressions build on an immediate bond, ingratiating Caan/Mississippi as a good-natured source of youthful levity to counter the classical weightiness of his aged counterparts.
In a sense, Caan acts as an audience surrogate, looking at Wayne and Mitchum and responding in a way that parallels the viewer’s own perception of this renowned cast. As far as their characters are concerned, however, the association cuts both ways. While there is a patent contentment with Thornton, Mississippi frequently challenges or rejects Harrah, his disdain typically a result of the sheriff’s debilitating alcoholism. Still, he sees, as we do through his eyes, the endurance of an affable past shared by Thornton and Harrah. Mississippi (and, in many ways, Caan) comes to represent the younger men they used to be. They don’t go so far as to state anything outright, but there is the implicit acknowledgment of imparting caution and wisdom.
Some of Mississippi’s relevance fades when the more prescient focus turns to Harrah’s drinking and Thornton’s injury, and Caan endures at least two regrettable actions—slapping Joey (after she strikes him first) and offering up an innocently racist mock-Asian impersonation—but arguably Caan’s biggest contribution to El Dorado is the humor he elicits. Save for considerable portions of Red River (1948), Hawks’ Westerns are never among the genre’s more somber or serious to begin with, but Caan’s happy-to-go-along presence is infectious. He even manages to get some unaffected amusement out of Wayne, who often looks at the young man with a bemused smirk. Caan dons a most incongruous hat, which is frequently the subject of ridicule, and enacts some board physical comedy, grimacing and recoiling as he mixes up Johnny Diamond’s sobering elixir. Mitchum generates some sympathetic laughter by playing the amusing drunk, but Mississippi’s humor is more consistent and less remorseful. There are the recurring jokes about his name, his headwear, and Harrah, in and out of a drunken stupor, can never seem to remember just who this kid is. Mississippi delivers dry quips with a stumbling earnestness—“I hit the sign and the sign hit him,” he clarifies when asked if he shot a fleeing villain—frequently, if unintentionally, riling up Thornton.
More evident here than in much of Caan’s early work (at least until Slither  and Freebie and the Bean ), there is an underrated comic potential in his El Dorado performance. But supposedly, Caan didn’t even realize how funny he looked. According to Hawks, the actor, “got a lot of laughs playing it perfectly serious. He didn’t know he was playing a comedy.” When he looks up toWayne, the elder statesman (quite so—Wayne had more than six inches on the newcomer), he grins like a simpleminded doofus. As Caan tells it: “I was playing it all for real and all of a sudden I realized that Jeeze, I’d better start smiling because some of this shit I’ve gotta say is pretty fucking ridiculous. So I started smiling. Every time John Wayne would talk, I’d be standing alongside smiling.”
Mississippi is something of an enigma, though, a little awkward, prone to waxing poetic—reciting passages from the 1849 Edgar Allan Poe ballad, “Eldorado”—and proceeding with an unexplored backstory. It is understood what brought him to this point, but there remains a mystery to his past (one isn’t even sure about his exact relationship with Diamond). He is no good at handling a gun—that much is clear when Thornton has to set him up with a scattershot can’t-miss shotgun—but he has an apparent capacity for violent, albeit a generally unenthusiastic one. Emotions remain mostly muted in El Dorado, as is the norm for such a film, but Caan gives Mississippi a more impulsive nature, bravely (or foolishly) leaping in front of a galloping horse, for instance, or going out on his own to investigate a shadowy figure seen hiding with a gun. And when that investigation leads to a romp in the hay with Carey’s Joey, Caan effortlessly indulges in a somewhat antagonistically amorous engagement. Cinched the minute he flashes his smile, this courtship doesn’t get far beyond the most preliminary stages, but as soon as Caan lays a tender touch on Carey’s elbow before the final showdown, the romance is solidified. As these things go, Caan and Carey ultimately got engaged but never married.
Given El Dorado’s similarities to Rio Bravo, it’s almost inevitable that one draws comparisons between the analogous characters. As noted, Wayne is fundamentally the same (though he gets a pivotal physical fallibility in the later feature) and Mitchum reprises the same basic characterization as Dean. Caan’s deviation from Nelson is considerably more pronounced, and it also has the most to do with the respective actors and their on- and off-screen personas. Born in 1940, Nelson was only 19 when Rio Bravo was released, and at the time, he was most widely known for his saccharine appearance on the long-running television program, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. Though he would continue to act into the 1980s, his tragic death at the age of 45 cemented the youthful essence assigned as a result of his most popular characters. Caan, on the other hand, already older when starring in El Dorado (he was also born in 1940), quickly grew into a more formidable screen personality. In looking back at these two Westerns, then, one sees the residual effect of divergent career trajectories. In the public consciousness, Nelson appears in Rio Bravo as he always would be (polished, young, fresh-faced), whereas Caan appears as he once was. In other words, one now views Caan through the lens of what he would become, drawing points of reference that span decades of work, all of which subsequently imbue in Mississippi a comparative maturity in retrospect.
The distinction between Nelson and Caan also has to do with their dissimilar acting styles. There is little doubt Nelson was playing off his easy to please, pretty-boy pop idol identity, which he does exceedingly well, while Caan represented a generational shift first embodied by the Brando-Dean-Clift set. It was, in fact, Caan’s brooding manner that caught Hawks’ eye for Redline 7000, and here, though he is outwardly jovial, Mississippi is also an ambiguously expressive young man. Nelson may have his slight eyebrow brush, but Caan is given more idiosyncratic character quirks. His posture is loose (his thumbs hooked coolly in his gun belt, which is hung slightly lower than normal), his movements are casual (he whistles, he fiddles with a deck of cards in his downtime, he shrugs, he shuffles), and Caan has an informal bravado without the Wayne machismo. As opposed to the generally restrained, straight-ahead physicality of Wayne and Mitchum, he is readily animated as the action dictates. On an evening watch, while Wayne and Mitchum are narrowly rigid in their determined demeanor, Caan is cagey, looking up, looking around, surveying the street in full body twists and turns. El Dorado is not a young man’s film, but when the emphasis shifts to Caan, he sure makes it seem that way.
Shot in 1965, El Dorado was held back from release until June of 1967, largely to avoid box office competition with Steve McQueen’s Nevada Smith. Hawks’ next film, Rio Lobo (1970) was his last. Wayne worked until 1976, giving his final, touching, and courageously personal performance in The Shootist, and Mitchum continued acting until 1997, when he played director George Stevens in the biopic, James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young. As for Caan, after starring in the solid Countdown (1967), Francis Ford Coppola’s moody The Rain People (1969), and the tear-jerking television movie Brian’s Song, which garnered him an Emmy nomination, he embarked on what became his most iconic role, as Sonny Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Caan has since had his ups and downs like any other actor, across genres and in both television and film, but like Wayne and Mitchum before him, he has now firmly taken his place among Hollywood’s legendary leading men. And El Dorado was just the beginning.
El Dorado screens 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 20 at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of its Caan Film Festival, running May 19–28.