The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936)

Warner Baxter in 'The Robin Hood of El Dorado'

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.

Warner Baxter and Margo

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.

Warner Baxter and Margo

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.

Warner Baxer and J. Carrol Naish

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.

Ann Loring and Warner Baxter

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.

A group shot advertising the movie

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18 thoughts on “The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936)

  1. Pingback: Christmas Trees, Takemitsu Festival – “Woman in the Dunes,” “Antonio Gaudi,” “The Ceremony” and Aronovsky’s “Black Swan” at Monday Morning Diary (December 6) « Wonders in the Dark

  2. “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.”

    You know Judy, I felt the same way about Spencer Tracy’s hopelessly fraudulent voice for Manuel in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, which still won him an Academy Award, but cheapened the otherwise fine film he played the lead in. But as you say here there aren’t many options, especially at a time when Hollywood equated excellent English language skills to cross over internationally. At around that time, Luise Rainer too won an Oscar for her performance as a Chinese woman in THE GOOD EARTH, though her work there was affecting.

    You have again plundered the Wellman vaults for an astonishly-comprehensive essay on a film that I have not seen, and I’m sure many others haven’t as well. I hear what you are saying about the general effectiveness of repeat viewings, and apparently in the case this concept rung true.

    I’m really hoping for a Warner Archives release, though in any case you’ll really brought the film to life here, most vividly!

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    • I haven’t seen ‘Captains Courageous’ as yet, but it is high on my list of must-sees as I’m a Spencer Tracy fan – I believe it is sometimes shown on TCM over here, so I must keep my eyes open for it. Warner Baxter also won an Oscar (the first male actor to do so, I believe!) for ‘In Old Arizona’, another Western where I think he also had a Spanish accent, though that is yet another movie I haven’t seen – I do often find these accents get in the way of what are otherwise fine films, as you say, but I’ll have to try to get used to them.

      Many thanks for the kind comments and all the encouragement, Sam.

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  3. Judy,

    Another early Wellman film I am unfamiliar with. He certainly was an active little devil in those days! (lol). Hopefully these rare kinds of films will see the light of day and will be easily accessible. Enjoyed reading.

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    • Thanks, John – he was taking longer over each movie by this time, I believe, and making two or three films a year rather than the huge numbers he made in the early 1930s, but he was also writing screenplays as well as directing so was probably just as busy. It would be good to see this one get a release.

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  4. I’ve never seen this one but it does sound interesting, especially the Billy the Kid references.
    Baxter is an actor that I haven’t really seen much of – to me he remains first and foremost The Crime Doctor, as that series was my first exposure to him when they ran on Saturday afternoons on Irish TV way back in the mid-80s.

    As for the accents business, I can’t say that I’ve ever been unduly troubled by them in any film. Somehow, I generally manage to just get accustomed to them and regard them as part and parcel of the movie. However, I do understand that when you pick up on something that irritates, for whatever reason, it’s seriously difficult to shake it off then.

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    • I’ve seen a few of Warner Baxter’s older films and really liked them, especially ’42nd Street’, Hawks’ ‘The Road to Glory’ and Ford’s ‘The Prisoner of Shark Island’ (probably his best role that I’ve seen), but would like to see more. According to the imdb, after being a big star in the 1930s he slipped into B-pictures in the 40s (I suppose when his looks started to fade), then had a nervous breakdown and signed up for the Crime Doctor films after recovering, partly because they were an easier schedule for him. I envy you seeing those.
      The accents are something I need to try to get over – I think they often annoy me more if I particularly like an actor’s real voice! Thanks, Colin.

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  5. Of course! How could I forget The Prisoner of Shark Island – an excellent film and and excellent performance by Baxter.

    I’d dearly love to see those Crime Doctor pictures again. When I was a kid in Northern Ireland we used to receive RTE from across the border and through that I had the pleasure of seeing all the Charlie Chan, Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie and Bulldog Drummond movies.

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  6. Pingback: Musical “Scrooge” with Albert Finney, Takemitsu Festival-”Ran,” “Kwaidan,” “Pitfall,” “Harikiri,” “Samurai Rebellion,” “Alone Across the Pacific” and more on Monday Mornin

  7. A full essay I liked very much. Just on the really older actor (at least middle-aged) playing a youngish male, this becomes more jarring as time goes as especially as film-producers now will hire the very young and not worry if they can achieve subtle or nuanced performances. Ellen

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    • Thank you, Ellen. I don’t think anyone would cast a 47-year-old to play a character who is supposed to be around 20 years younger in a movie nowadays – although you do sometimes see middle-aged actors playing young characters at the start of mini-series, so that they can age later.

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  8. The movie is a bit dated but I have watched it through twice. Strangely during the last time, which was only today, I teared up at the end as Joaquin died. It caught me off guard. But then I realized that the movie with all of it’s imperfections, delivered the final message of a decent person who is driven by circumstances and events towards a tragic end. Whether the story us historically true or not or whether the phony Spanish accents hold were all things that were not important. Warner Baxter was a great actor and he wills us to care about Joaquin and the dispossed Mexicans.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Tom, and I agree on this film showing the fate of a good person driven to tragedy by circumstances – the ending is very moving. Also agree that Warner Baxter was a great actor – it is a shame there aren’t more of his films available on DVD. Every time I see another of his films I’m more impressed with him. I also think Wellman wills us to care about the dispossessed Mexicans, as in so many of his films which root for the people left with nothing.

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  9. I remember seeing this movie as a boy of 8. I was very moved by the sadness of Joaquin when his mother is hurt and his wife dying in his arms. Mr. Wellman created a great build up into the dynamic of Joaquin’s anger resentment and stalwart revenge against the miners who killed and hurt his family. When his half brother Jose is killed by the townspeople (drunk of course) that seemed to send him over the edge to full on revenge. As a young hispanic boy I realized back then 1959, that injustice , predjudice and inequality exists in the world. I have been trying to find this movie everywhere. For some unknown reson to me, it can’t be found. I really enjoyed the feelings and emotions this film had on a small boy. I can still remember the final scene at the cemetery. Very Moving…..

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    • Hi Frank, thanks for commenting and sorry to be slow in replying. Sadly, this is a hard film to find, but it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US and I see from looking at their website that it will be shown there on May 9 at 8am Eastern Time – I am hoping you have access to this channel and that this will be of some help!
      http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/88476/Robin-Hood-of-El-Dorado/

      The movie clearly made a strong impression on you as a child since you have remembered the scenes and emotions for all these years, and I agree that it gives a strong portrayal of injustice and prejudice.

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  10. Pingback: Warner Baxter | Movie classics

  11. The mountain scenes were filmed very c;lose to my family cabin, HWY 108. As a boy of 8, My father and his friend used to scour the shootout scenes for spent cartridge casing. two days ago i scoured the site,(The scene where they charge out of the mountains on horseback) with my metal detector and found several of the blank cartridge casings. Pretty neat almost 80 years after my Dad as a child picked up relics from the movie, I did as well…..

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