I’ll admit I was expecting an awful lot from The Robin Hood of El Dorado – yet another 1930s William A Wellman film (this one made for MGM rather than Warner or RKO) which isn’t as yet officially available on DVD. I knew that it was a socially-conscious Western which had a high reputation, and also that it starred Warner Baxter. He is an actor I admire though sadly many of his films seem to have disappeared (especially the silent ones, like the very first adaptation of The Great Gatsby) or are very hard to track down. This Western is also the first movie where Wellman was credited as scriptwriter as well as director – coming just a year before he won the Oscar for writing A Star Is Born.
So one way and another my hopes were high, but on first viewing I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. I was impressed by the film’s powerful indictment of racism and prejudice, but felt as if the drama falls off in the middle after a powerful start. And I was also slightly taken aback to see Baxter playing a Mexican bandit, Joaquin Murrieta, complete with a heavy fake Spanish accent rather than his own expressive voice. There are many scenes where the Mexican characters speak among themselves in accented English, which I find hard to take at times – though there isn’t much option in a film where some of the actors, like Mexican actress Margo as Murrieta’s young bride Rosita, really are from Latin America and others aren’t.
However, on a second viewing I’d stopped being distracted by Baxter’s accent, and also didn’t notice much falling-off in pace in the middle of the film. So maybe I was just in the wrong mood for this film first time round. Anyway, I definitely think it is well worth seeing and would probably appeal to anyone who likes Wellman’s pre-Codes, since it has similar concerns, again focusing on the poor and dispossessed. I’m wondering if outlaw films like this one were to some extent a replacement for gangster films after the Code was brought in, because it was increasingly difficult to show sympathy for a character rebelling against present-day society – but directors and writers could maybe get away with this more by going back in history.
The movie is based on Walter Noble Burns’ book about Murrieta, who really was a Mexican bandit fighting the Americans in 1840s California, after Mexico ceded the state to the US. I was interested to see that Burns also wrote a book about Billy the Kid, because the main story of this film is similar to the legend of Billy – the man who sets out to be revenged on a group of individuals who have killed someone dear to him, and who then finds himself an outlaw with a price on his head as a result.
In the opening scenes, Baxter is cast as a young, fresh-faced and happy Murrieta, celebrating his wedding day with teenage bride Rosita (Margo). I was surprised to see him in such a boyish role, since he was 47 by this time and in other films from around the same period, like 42nd Street or The Road to Glory, I’ve seen him playing world-weary middle-aged characters – but actors could definitely get away with playing a greater age range in black and white. The opening scenes paint a rather idyllic picture of country life, but there is a shadow over the happiness from the start, as Joaquin’s brother, José (Carlos De Valdez) falls out with a visiting American soldier.
The rest of this review contains spoilers.
After the wedding, Joaquin and Rosita are glimpsed leading a blissful early married life at their small farm, where Joaquin has no interest in searching for gold, like all the prospectors around him, but instead concentrates on digging potatoes out of the earth. However, some American prospectors decide they want his claim and try to bully him out of it. When that doesn’t work, they turn to violence, attacking Joaquim and his mother and murdering Rosita. It’s strongly implied that they also rape her, though this isn’t stated outright.
Wild with grief and rage, Murrieta sets out to take his revenge on all four of the men involved in the murder – but, as he picks them off one by one, he finds himself a wanted outlaw. Reluctantly he leaves his farm and goes to stay with his brother in another area – but the trouble continues as José is falsely accused of killing a mule and summarily hanged by a lynch mob. Murrieta now becomes a bandit in earnest, joining forces with Three-Fingered Jack (J. Carrol Naish) and raising an army of Mexicans to take on the Americans at every turn.
Most of the villains in this film are the Americans, and there are some devastating scenes of small groups of drunken thugs sneering at “Mexes” and deliberately setting out to steal, intimidate and take what they want. However, Wellman paints in shades of grey, and it isn’t as simple as the Mexicans being good and the Americans being bad. Among the Mexicans, Three-Fingered Jack is a thug who enjoys killing for its own sake, while Joaquim has two close friends among the Americans, Bill Warren (Bruce Cabot) and his brother Johnnie (Eric Linden), who are just as idealistic as he is himself.
The film also shows how the outlaw life changes Murrieta to at least some extent – there is a telling scene where he swaggers into a meeting of richer Mexicans to take money from them by force, and is upbraided by the formerly wealthy Juanita (Ann Loring), who tells him that she has lost everything too, and that he is destroying his own community instead of helping it. Ann Loring is really the leading lady of the film, eventually joining the bandit group despite her initial disapproval, and there are suggestions of romance between her character and Joaquin, but this never comes to anything because he is still in love with his dead wife.
In a tragic twist, Murrieta’s group ends up killing Johnnie’s bride, thus committing just the same crime that was committed against Murrieta himself – and Bill, who was Joaquin’s friend, ends up leading a posse against him, another plot element which is very reminiscent of the Billy the Kid story.
The final scene sees Murrieta dying on Rosita’s grave, which is marked by a cross, the culmination of a daring series of Christ images running through the film – early on Murrieta is given 39 lashes and in another scene he is seen standing in front of a statue of the crucifixion.
After admiring this film so much more at the second viewing, I’m thinking I should definitely give more movies a second chance if I don’t really get them first time round. I do hope this one eventually gets a DVD release so that more people can see it. Incidentally, the imdb claims that Baxter possibly had a fear of horses – I must hope this wasn’t true, since he spends an awful lot of time riding them in this movie.