El Dorado (1966) Ending Explained – Does Cole decide to stay back in town?

El Dorado Plot Summary

For the most part, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado doesn’t resemble a Western. Released in 1966 when the genre was at its peak and Hawks himself had immense success in the craft, El Dorado lies in a distinguished league. Much like the director’s 1958 hit Rio Bravo, the film is about the friendship of two men who come to each other’s rescue in the namesake town. John Wayne and Calum Mitchell play the central characters, while James Caan and Charlene Holt play important supporting roles. 

El Dorado isn’t the quintessential Western with a revenge narrative or too much expansive movement. It is highly contained in the town of El Dorado, where all the action spirals in the space of a few miles. Wayne and Mitchum’s characters lead the dialogue-heavy approach, although Hawks ensures that the entertainment remains crisp with neatly edited and spaced-out gun fights. The larger theme of taming the “Wild West” with law enforcement and rugged sheriffs is given a positive spin that revolves around camaraderie and loyalty. 

Sheriff JP Harrah (Mitchum) warns his good friend Cole Thornton (Wayne) about his upcoming job. Cole is a hired gun – one of the best in the American midwest – and has agreed to take money from a wealthy businessman Jason Bart (Ed Asner) to oust the MacDonald family from their ranch. The narrative he has been fed is muddled with lies and deceit. Harrah clears the air and establishes Kevin MacDonald as a decent and honest family man who has worked the hours to make his barren land fruitful. 

Why does Cole decide not to work for Jason?

His ranch has access to a large water reserve that Jason needs to expand his business. But given the large size of his family and the notional value of the land, MacDonald isn’t willing to let go of it. This is why Cole has been hired – to scare off MacDonald into accepting the deal. Cole is surprised as this isn’t the version of things explained to him. He agrees to back down, trusting the word of his old friend. Harrah is reputed in the region as being an upstanding and honest man of law enforcement, which wasn’t the norm in those days.

Cole trusts his old friend to be telling the truth and rides on to the MacDonald ranch. But first, he makes a pit stop at Jason’s house. Cole rejects his offer, telling him about the new information he has learned. Jason accepts Cole’s rejection, given the latter’s skill and threat factor. While going to his next destination, Cole inadvertently runs into trouble.

Why does Cole leave El Dorado?

Luke, one of Kevin’s four sons, is stationed at the top of a rock en route to the ranch. He is posted there as a lookout to warn MacDonald and his men in case Cole makes his way to them. However, Luke fell asleep at his post. He is startled when he hears Cole ride in on his horse and fires at him. However, Luke misses but Cole doesn’t. The young rancher receives a blow in the stomach and Cole goes to check on him. Even though the wound is not that bad, Luke commits suicide because of what his father told him about such injuries.

Cole feels guilty and takes Luke’s body back to the ranch. He is honest about what happened, which seems to strike Kevin. He accepts Cole’s version of events, although Joey, Kevin’s only daughter, is distraught and rides away from the ranch when she sees Luke’s body. When Cole is passing by the same route to go back into town, Joey hides on a rock, waiting for him.

When he passes, she shoots him and he falls off his horse. However, Cole gains the upper hand when Joey goes up to him to inspect if he is dead, showing her inexperience. Cole isn’t hit too badly and allows Joey to go back to the ranch. However, when Doctor Miller inspects the wounds, he informs Cole that the bullet did not exit his body. It is pressed up against the spine, which will be tricky for Miller to remove since he doesn’t have the requisite expertise. A few days later, Cole leaves the town to head for Sonora.

He explains that he has been contracted to take care of some trouble at a silver mine. Maudie (Holt), who has waited for Cole all her life, is disappointed to hear news of this departure from Bull, Harrah’s deputy. Cole explains privately to Maudie that he is shaken by the incident with Luke. The longer he remains in town, the more difficult it would get for him to forget about it. He promises to come back someday for her and they share a passionate kiss.

How does Cole meet Mississippi? 

After spending a while in the town, Cole’s path meets with that of Mississippi (Caan) one evening. He is a young man looking to exact revenge on one of Nelse McLeod’s henchmen. McLeod is also a gun for hire like Cole, reputed for his fast drawing and astute shooting skills. Mississippi wanted to kill Charlie Hagan because along with three other men, he murdered Johnny Diamond, a father figure in Mississippi’s life. Cole has no involvement at all in the fight and yet saves the young man’s life by intervening. 

It is a metaphorical redemption for killing Luke and restoring his honour. Nelse recognizes Cole for his talent and asks his men to back down. He offers Cole to join his team, explaining that a man named Bart Jason has hired him. Cole grows concerned with the fate about to befall the MacDonald family. But what makes him even more fearful is the revelation that Harrah has become a drunk. A woman left Harrah after they fell in love and that has left him devastated. 

Mississippi offers to ride with Cole back to El Dorado but the gunman doesn’t agree. However, Mississippi still follows him and it is fate that he did. Cole has been having incidents where a spasm renders his right side paralyzed. They have gotten worse over time and Cole knows it is because of the bullet pressing against his spine. Mississippi saves his life and in return, Cole gifts him a shotgun. The only problem – the young man doesn’t know how to use it. Cole teaches him, although it will take a while before Mississippi perfects the art. 

When they get to El Dorado, Cole meets up with Maudie, who explains the timeline. Cole and Mississippi ride to the police station, where along with Bull, they try to get Harrah back to sobriety. It takes a while – an entire day to be exact – but Harrah finally regains his senses. He suffers from the effects of withdrawal, having constantly consumed alcohol for the two months prior.

Ending Explained:

The situation grows dire the next day as MacDonald, Jason, and McLeod, all ride into town one after the other with their groups. With Harrah not up to the task, Cole and Bull have to do the heavy lifting. Harrah regains his sobriety but wants to go back to his drunken state. He goes to the salon next door to get a bottle of whiskey. But when Jason’s men make fun of him, Harrah realizes that he has lost his respect. He throws the bottle down at the station in agony and asks for the help of the duo to get him back on his feet. 

Bull, who had gone to keep the MacDonald family safe, blows his trumpet to alert Cole and Mississippi. Jared, one of Kevin’s sons, is shot by Jason’s men, who run up to the old church after the crime. Bull, Harrah, Cole, and Mississippi, go to apprehend the men. But they are in no mood to surrender. In the ensuing gunfight, Cole is able to down two of the culprits. The third runs back into the salon, where he has protection from the others.

Harrah puts his foot down to assert his authority. After killing him, he arrests Jason to prevent any break out of a tussle between his faction and MacDonalds’. As they are taking him away, Jason gives Nelse an ultimatum to break him free for a handsome reward. Mississippi spots someone pointing a gun at the station from the livery stable. He checks it out and to his surprise, Joey is the silhouette. She confesses that she wanted to kill Jason as he was being taken in but couldn’t get a clear shot.

The duo instantly hit it off as Joey renews her acquaintance with Cole in the station. After she leaves, the quartet of men defend the station from an expected attack by Nelse and his men. In a blitz action scene, Harrah gets injured in the gunfight between the trio of men – excluding Bull – and Nelse’s first wave of attack. Doctor Miller arrives with his compatriot, Doctor Donovan. Miller explains to Cole that Donovan is an expert and can successfully carry out the surgery,

Donovan sounds a word of warning to Cole that he must get the procedure done sooner rather than later as it could render him paralyzed for life. But Cole makes it clear that he first has to deal with this Nelse mess. Joey and Maudie help the quartet as they remain steadfast in defence of the station. Nelse uses Maudie to draw out Cole by asking one of her friends, Polly, to send the message to the station. He is apprehended by McLeod and his men but Mississippi, who went with Cole, is broken free out of the place by Maudie.

She brings him back to the station and apprises them of what happened. McLeod and the others bombard the place with guns. He throws a bounded Cole at the door of the station, demanding Harrah that he release Jason in return for Cole. It seems that Donovan’s prophecy has already come true. Cole’s right hand is paralyzed, which McLeod also acknowledges. Harrah agrees to the trade and lets Jason go.

Does Cole decide to stay back in town?

The next morning, Joey informs the men that his brother, Saul, has been kidnapped by Nelse’s men. They are demanding Kevin that he sign over the rights to the water reservoir in exchange for  Saul’s life. The quartet makes a risky plan. Cole, who can barely use his right hand, will go to the salon where Saul is being kept in the front. The other three will quietly enter using the back door. Once Cole has attracted their attention, Bull will blow his trumpet and the other two will start shooting.

This plan works to perfection as the quartet kills everybody on Nelse and Jason’s side. Except, Joey redeems herself by shooting Jason before he can kill Cole. Order is restored in El Dorado, with its watchful guardian back to his feet, and perhaps a new dark knight in the form of Cole, who signals his intention to stay for Maudie. 

Feel free to check out more of our movie reviews here!

Leave a comment