Well well what was the last great western you saw? A question sometimes without much of an answer. El Dorado picks up loosley where Rio Bravo left off, and features the only man fit enough to make a western with, the Duke. Howard Hawks returns to the genre after quite an absence, and a few somewhat shaky films. The result is a return to form and one of the last great old time western films.
The genre was in it's old age by this point, and the first wave of Italian westerns were making their way to the US when this film was being made. The old time simple stories of good vs. bad were far out of fashion. Yet El Dorado stands out not as a bastion of old time fun in a self critical age, but as a damn good western, and like the best films of any era this transcends time. You don't watch El Dorado thinking "this came out in 1967", instead you think "this is a great western". That's the only way to look at it, and maybe it was out of touch for viewers in 1967, but looking back on it today it stands just as high and mighty as Rio Bravo, Red River, or any other classic western.
Wayne gets to skip on being the sheriff in this film, leaving those duties to Robert Mitchum, and his comic deputy Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicutt) taking the former Walter Brennan role. An old Indian fighter, who like the rest of the characters doesn't seem like he'd be much of an assett, but proves himself worthy countless times. Hawks seemed to rejoice in a band of misfits, cripples, old timers, and gun men who can't shoot. His posse is hardly grade A lawmen, more like the New York Mets. Somehow, like the Mets on two occasions, they actually do manage to win, and despite their physical and mental handicaps they do the job and it's a lot more rewarding.
Hawks seemed preoccupied with the notion that people will do the right thing. This film as well as Rio Bravo remain direct responses to High Noon, where just one man faced his foes with a town full of cowards. Here no matter how much you tell people you don't want their help, they're still right behind you. But everyone eventually makes good, and therefore you can rest assured, that perhaps Will Kane would have had it a little easier if someone would have taken him up on his offer.
Not to necessarily compare, but this film is instantly more enjoyable than High Noon. It is a fun western, with enough humor thrown in to know that come victory or tragedy this is still going to be a fun ride. There are characters you can certainly root for, pull for, and the reward of their success is much greater. Fine performances all around, particularly by Mitchum as the half drunk half sober sheriff. James Caan has an early starring role here as Mississippi, quick with a knife but horrible with a gun. But he manages to prove himself a little smarter than one would expect, and like the rest of the bunch he two winds up learning. Rio Lobo was made as a bit of a follow up to this, but seeing how I've not yet seen it, I can make no comments regarding this unofficial trilogy.