The Sons of Katie Elder(1965), directed by Western veteran Henry Hathaway, and starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, is an entertaining, old-fashioned, atmospheric Western in which 4 brothers take revenge on an evil entrepreneur who killed their father and stole their land.
Most famous in John ‘Duke’ Wayne’s filmography for being the first film he made after licking the ‘Big C’- to which he lost one lung and two ribs- “The Sons of Katie Elder” is a middling traditional Western directed by the ever-dependable Western Veteran Henry Hathaway, who has made better movies with Duke- remember “North to Alaska” and Oscar winning “True Grit”. This sometimes entertaining, sometimes meandering, extremely well shot- by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard in picturesque Mexican locations- and well acted Western has its moments, but never fulfills the potential that its initial portions promised us. But the film still possess some of Hathaway’s trademarks; like the atmospheric use of locations, sets and animals(read horses), as a well as an affirmation of traditional Western values(good triumphs evil, son(s) avenges parents’ death) avoiding the reflection and self-reflection that was creeping into Westerns of the time, with a solid ensemble cast at the center. Hathaway would take this “avenging the parents’ murder” to its bloody extreme with the very violent Steve McQueen vehicle, “Nevada Smith,” which he would make the very next year. I think that film is far superior than this one, though watching John Wayne in a Western and Steve McQueen in a Western are very different kind of experiences, and each provide their own pleasures.
After the more rollicking and rambunctious adventures of ‘North to Alaska“, “The Comancheros” and “McLintock!”, “Katie Elder” finds Duke in a more pensive and serious mode (a continuation of his character in “In Harm’s Way“), though the film itself becomes too silly and routine to exploit these facets of Duke’s characterization to its advantage. This two hour long film feels rather too long at times, and though they are psychological undercurrents in the film, it’s not something that would tax an average viewer. But still, the film remains more or less an engrossing watch, coasting on Duke’s charisma and a solid supporting cast. This film is about four (estranged)brothers- Duke plays John, the oldest, a gunslinger; Dean Martin is Tom, a gambler wanted for murder; Earl Holliman is Matt. an unsuccessful businessman; and Michael Anderson Jr. plays the youngest brother, Bud, attending college- who reunite in their hometown of Clearwater, Texas, in 1898 (after a long separation) for the funeral of their mother, Katie Elder. Katie, a widow, who died poor, was much loved and respected member of the community. Katie had been living in semi-poverty since the death of her husband Bass Elder several months previously under suspicious circumstances. Her former ranch is now owned by gunsmith & rising entrepreneur, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), who is outwardly friendly but worried about John Elder’s presence. He has hired gunman Curley (George Kennedy) in case a showdown with John is necessary.
But John and his brothers have lot more on their plate- particularly, coming to terms with their grief and the regret that none of them have lived up to their mother’s high expectations. On top of that, the townspeople are unfriendly to the brothers for neglecting their pioneer mother- who had nothing but good things to say about her sons till the end; the new deputy sheriff Ben Latta (Jeremy Slate) is also very hostile towards them, especially to John and Tom because of their profession. The Elder brothers are surprised when they come to know that their mother owned nothing when she died; that their father gambled away their rich ranch to Hastings. Their surprise turns to suspicion when they come to know that their father was treacherously shot in the back and killed the very night that he lost the ranch. The Elder brothers decides to do some investigation of their own and they march into town, only to realize that the townsfolk are reluctant to talk to them about the whole affair. Sheriff Billy Wilson (Paul Fix) who had already warned John to keep a low profile, also ask them to drop their investigation, but the brothers persist. A visit to Hastings’ ranch bring them face to face with Hastings’ cowardly and nervous son, Dave (Dennis Hopper), who gets into an argument with John; in the course of which they’re confronted by Latta, who tries to arrest the brothers, but is disarmed by Tom. The brothers decide to give themselves up anyway, but the Sheriff let’s them go.
A rancher named Striker agrees to let the brothers drive a herd of horses from his ranch in Pecos to sell to the miners in Colorado, on credit, a deal he started with their mother. While the brothers are out driving the horses, the Sheriff is murdered outside the Elders’ home by Hastings. Sheriff had started getting suspicious of Hastings’ involvement in the death of Bass Elder. So, Hastings had to get rid of him. Hastings also manages to put the blame of Sheriff’s murder on the Elders. The Elders are arrested on their way from Pecos, but the judge, fearing there might be a mob lynching, orders them to be taken to Laredo for safety, shackled in wagons. On the way to Laredo, Hastings’ goons led by Curly ambushes them on a bridge. Though Latta is not in on this conspiracy, many of his deputies are, and they hold Latta at gunpoint while the Elders are fired upon by Curly and his men.
The Elders manage to sneak under the bridge, but Curley plants dynamite under the bridge, and in the explosion, Matt is impaled by a splinter of wood and dies. In the shootout that follows, John kills Curley and Bud is seriously injured. John and Tom manages to beat back the ambushers, and then they return to town to take revenge on Hastings. In town, they take refuge in the smithy, and they tell the Judge- who’s also now the acting Sheriff- that they can prove their innocence in the Sheriff’s murder, and they will surrender only to a U.S. Marshall. As they await the Marshall, Tom, in a daring move, kidnaps Dave- who’s in a state of panic. As he leads Dave to the smithy at gunpoint, Hastings shoots Tom in the back, but Tom still manages to make it to the smithy with Dave. Now Hastings, who has followed both of them, shoots and kills Dave before he could spill anything to the judge. But Dave, though mortally wounded, still manages to give testimony against his father- in the crimes of killing Bass Elder and the Sheriff. Now exonerated of all crimes, and having known the truth about his father’s murder, John madly pursues Hastings, and after a fierce gun battle, John ends up blows up Hastings’ gun shop, with Hastings in it. The film ends with an image straight out of a John Ford movie: Katie Elder’s rocking chair- a symbol of homely comfort- swaying to and fro in front of the fireplace.
“The Sons of Katie Elder”, which mixes human drama, action, mystery, comedy and pathos, with Duke essaying the saintly, larger than life role of the eldest brother devoid of any romantic attachments, is the archetypal ‘John Wayne Western’; though strictly second tier. It’s not bad at any point, and even very good in certain portions, but it does not rise to being remarkable. The middle section of the film is unnecessarily dragged out; the best moments in the film happens in the first act and towards the end of the third. The central mystery of the film is pretty non-existent; we are on it right from the beginning, even when the brothers are running around like headless chickens looking for clues; and it also doesn’t help that Morgan Hastings is a cardboard villain doing the most clichéd things a Western-villain does. George Kennedy, who’s in top form as the intimidating Curly, does not get much to do, and is killed off rather unceremoniously in a crossfire.
A real pity, because the character has been built up to such heights, starting with the ‘typical’ Western train station sequence- where the brothers await the arrival of John Elder, and instead it’s Curly-dressed in all-black- that arrives- a scene that proved to be a direct inspiration to Sergio Leone while conceiving “Once upon a time in the West(1968)”; even the names of the towns are similar, here “Clearwater”, there “Sweetwater”. Apart from an amusing scene where Duke belts Kennedy with a two-by-four, and a tense standoff between Kennedy and the brothers in a saloon, Kennedy’s presence doesn’t amount to much. There also appears to be lot of inconsistencies regarding plot development: Katie Elder is revered as some sort of Mother Teresa by the townsfolk, yet they’re fully content in letting her die in penury. Neither do the townsfolk help her when her husband is treacherously murdered and when her land is taken away. The question also remains as to why the brothers chose to return only for their mother’s funeral, and not after their father is murdered. Maybe it was meant to protect the saintly aura around Katie Elder; though never visible in the film, it’s her presence that permeates the entire film. Apart from her, the only other female presence in the film is provided by Martha Hyer as Mary Gordon- the girl who was devoted to Katie in her lifetime- and her role doesn’t amount to much in the overall plot of the film.