My partner disputes the idea that El Dorado qualifies for this column, simply because it’s a John Wayne Western. Now, that’s not getting into the pre-Stagecoach Westerns, and even some of the ones a bit after, that can be awfully damn obscure. I’ve seen Angel and the Badman because it’s one of my mom’s favourite movies, and that’s from 1947. But can you name the other five John Wayne movies from 1939? Four of them featured him in a group called “The Three Mesquiteers,” which is a thing that they’re telling me exists. The fifth I don’t think really qualifies for this column but I really wish it did because it’s a Western if you accept that anything set on the American frontier counts and that a 1759-set movie can be a Western if it’s in the Allegheny Valley.
Still, we can be pretty sure very few people have read The Stars in Their Courses, by Harry Brown. It’s the story of the Randal family of Texas, who have one of those ranches you can’t ride across in a single day. The patriarch is Percy, married to Hannah. The events of the book start on the day of their son Luke’s eighteenth birthday party. Luke is the youngest; his older brothers are Pax and Hallock, and his older sister is Cora. While the party is happening, a couple of their ranch hands discover that one fork of the river that joins on their property to run to the Rio Grande has started instead running into the earth, possibly removing the water from the access of everyone in the area.
Another man in the area, Mark Lacy, has a beautiful wife whom he’s mistreating. He’s been getting enormously drunk, and he’s started hitting Ellen because she can’t have children. When Pax Randal goes to the Lacy house to tell Mark that, no, they aren’t really damming the river, Ellen demands that he take her away from her abusive husband. Which would be fine if Pax hadn’t slept with her; provided he weren’t a known womanizer, no one would’ve much argued. But he did, and he can’t believably deny it, and Percy handled Mark badly when he asked about the water, and what with one thing and another, things are going very badly. With or without the help of local black sheep Arch Eastmere.
People who have seen the movie are blinking vacantly now. The movie is the story of Cole Thornton (Wayne). His best friend is J. P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum). Cole is sent for by ranch owner Bart Jason (Ed Asner), who wants his help driving out the MacDonald family. Cole won’t do it, because J.P.’s the sheriff of the nearby town of El Dorado. Some time later, Jason brings in gunslinger Nelse McLeod (Christopher George) to chase out the MacDonalds, and it’s okay, because in the meantime, J.P.’s turned into an utter drunk over a failed relationship.
Cole, a young man called Mississippi (James Caan, of all people), and Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt) must prevent the MacDonalds from being killed. Joey MacDonald (Michele Carey) accidentally shot Cole a while back, and that’s causing some trouble. And of course there’s Maudie (Charlene Holt), who loves both Cole and J.P. So she’s maybe possibly going to get killed for her support.
These are not at all the same thing. In fact, Harry Brown wanted his name taken off the movie. He didn’t get his way, hence the column, but I can definitely see his point. Practically the only character whose name stays the same from book to movie is Maudie, who’s Arch’s lover and usually a sex worker. Luke Randal and Luke MacDonald meet the same fate, but in the service of such wildly different stories that it seems almost a coincidence.
The book, amazingly purple prose aside, is a much more ambiguous story. The Randals theoretically could shut off water, though the book makes it clear that the area’s geography make it harder than everyone is acting as though it should be. And Ellen Lacy’s agency is being completely ignored—she has the right to walk away from an abusive husband, but because she sleeps with Pax Randal, no one is worried about what happened to her. Mark Lacy comes across as a man whose psychotic break happens to coincide with other events, and there’s still lingering irritation that Hallock Randal fought for the Union, not the Confederacy.
I think everyone in El Dorado who fought in the war fought for the Confederacy. It’s less relevant, though it’s implied it’s where several of the characters met. It’s another story about water rights; you get a lot of those, when you’re really looking at the Old West. It’s almost as though the Southwest is a giant desert or something. But the hint that Percy Randal wants Mark Lacy’s spread to let Pax have his own land is now Bart Jason wanting as much land as he can get.
It’s also true that Harry Brown makes it clear almost from the beginning that he sees his story as a tragedy. El Dorado isn’t one. Does it have a happy ending? Not exactly, but it doesn’t exactly not, either. I don’t think John Wayne would like this, but it reads as though it’s a love story between Cole and J.P. Okay, a love story with a lot of gunfighting and things, and Maudie’s there, but this Maudie doesn’t seem to be particularly attracted to either of them. It’s a better movie if you think of it from that perspective, I suppose, but I don’t think anyone was. I like it—better, in fact, that Rio Bravo, which has a similar plot—but Harry Brown’s right. It’s not his book.
Next month, ignore the holidays entirely with The Off-Islanders, which became The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! This column isn’t exactly a city of gold, or enough to have a summer cottage; consider helping me out by supporting my Patreon or Ko-fi!