Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Duke and Dino Re-team for "The Sons of Katie Elder"

John Wayne had recently recovered
from lung cancer.
Katie Elder lived modestly in the frontier town of Clearwater. Her alcoholic, gambling husband lost their ranch in a poker game and was fatally shot (in the back) that same night. She made dresses and gave guitar lessons to earn the money to send the youngest of her four sons to college. Katie only owned two dresses herself--one for the winter and one for the summer. She never heard from her sons, but told the town's residents that they sent her money on a regular basis. She counted her oldest sons' letters among her most prized possessions and read them frequently--though he had stopped writing new ones long ago. She even prepaid for her funeral.

Michael Anderson, Jr. replaced
Tommy Kirk after a scandal involving
the latter.
All of this is news to her sons, who arrive in Clearwater at the beginning of The Sons of Katie Elder to bury their mother. We learn that the eldest son, John (John Wayne) left home ten years earlier and eventually became a gunfighter (the sheriff notes: "John Elder isn't wanted for anything...around here"). Matt Elder (Dean Martin) is a con man and gambler. Youngest son Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) doesn't want to return to college. And Matt Elder (Earl Holloway), well, he just seems to be wasting his life away. In short, the Elder boys are not a very sympathetic lot.

Instead of going their separate ways again after the funeral, the brothers decide to look into their father's murder. Though they can't find any witnesses nor evidence, they become suspicious of Morgan Hastings, a gun-maker who now owns the old Elder ranch. The town's mortician confides to John: "Hastings' bent on taking over the whole county." As the audience, we already know Hastings is bad--he has hired a gunfighter (George Kennedy) to dispose of John. It quickly becomes apparent that The Sons of Katie Elder is heading steadily toward a major showdown.

John Elder watches the funeral.
While Sergio Leone was reinventing the Western in Europe in the mid-1960s, American filmmakers like Henry Hathaway were churning out solid, traditional Westerns like this one. There are effective moments in the opening scenes of Katie Elder, such as John watching his mother's funeral in the distance, knowing his presence would only cause disruption. Hathaway frames his celluloid images like a painter, with colorful mountains often adding visual majesty to the backgrounds. There are some potentially rich themes in The Sons of Katie Elder, too, principally that tragedy can reinvigorate the bonds of family. After spending time with his brothers, John apparently wants the camaraderie to continue and proposes they join together to deliver a herd of horses. It's not a long-term solution toward reuniting the family, but it's a start.

Anthony Mann explored the importance of family masterfully in his adult Westerns of the 1950s. One wonders how Mann would have handled this material with a different cast (e.g., imagine an embittered James Stewart as John!). But The Sons of Katie Elder has no intentions of being a "serious Western." Yes, there are killings, but the bickering brothers also brawl playfully whether carousing in Mom's cabin or throwing each other in a river. And when it turns somewhat serious toward the end, the film jettisons its "importance of  family" theme in favor of two lengthy shootout scenes.

Dean co-starred with the Duke twice.
One can't fault the cast, which certainly appears game. However, it's unfortunate that Katie Elder re-teams  John Wayne and Dean Martin--simply because it recalls their earlier pairing in Howard Hawks' superior 1959 Western Rio Bravo. My recommendation is that you block out that movie and just accept The Sons of Katie Elder for what it is: a well-made, likable, but disposable Western that missed the opportunity to be more.


  1. Filmed just after Wayne's lung had been removed, because of his cancer. So this film may not be one of his best films. I'm also a huge fan of Dean Martin, so I did enjoy his performance as Tom. I agree.. Rio Bravo, is a better western.

    1. Rick,

      I recently re-watched this about a week or two ago and it has not gotten any better with age. A weak script and just a little too much "fun," As you say, "likable, but disposable." Interesting enough, director Henry Hathaway was responsible for blackballing Dennis Hopper in Hollywood back in 1958 after they clashed during the making of the 1958 film FROM HELL TO TEXAS. Hathaway was also responsible for giving Hopper his second chance when he gave him a small part in this film.

  2. Oh, did this movie cause me to crush on Earl Holliman when I was a kid!

    And the musical theme is terrific!

  3. Great review. I really love reading different takes on Westerns. I personally love Sons of Katie Elder, but am indifferent to Rio Bravo! This movie pushes the right buttons for me, and I love everything about it. And like Patti says, Bernstein's score is top-notch!

  4. I think your review is pretty fair to this film, Rick. It's not a top-flight western, but is certainly well-enough made and enjoyable. I think all the ingredients were there to make it one for the ages, but the script just didn't quite pull it off. The cast, music and climactic action are all good value, though. And the Duke is always worth watching. His physical performance is quite impressive, considering how soon after his cancer surgery he filmed this thing. It sure doesn't sound like it was an easy shoot for him.

  5. I know its easy to knock this film - Katie and Pa Elder must have been some couple, knocking out four sons of such varied ages. But I like it a lot. It's a little sloppy and careless, but I like the breeziness of the whole affair. And the scene with Dean Martin selling his glass eye to Strother Martin is one of the all time greats.

  6. I think this film has a lot going for it, even though it may be a bit uneven. The premise is interesting, and the cast turns in good performances. I'm not sure I agree that the film is "dispensable". However, I really enjoyed your review.

  7. Bad movie, so poorly written and developed. And John Wayne is terrible.