JC. BRIEFLY ABOUT THE BEST ACTOR
JAMES CAAN: Oh, did he? Well, you can imagine how big it was for me, then. [Laughs.] Here I am, I’m like, 25, and I’m with him all day long. Between him and Robert Mitchum, I immediately went and got three-inch lifts in my cowboy boots so I could stand next to those guys. Yeah, that was quite the experience. But I was always kind of a punk, you know? A real New York guy. John Wayne was always calling me “kid,” and he was a guy who, if he could intimidate you, he would. But I just kept laughing at him. And, thankfully, he respected that.
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 comultiple times JC has been through his career that JW is the best western actorunterpart.