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.
The most striking moment in the film is the introduction of Duke’s John Elder; this could be Duke’s most iconic introduction scene since John Ford’s “Stagecoach”- that made him a star. It’s Katie’s funeral, and the three brothers (minus John) along with many townsfolk are present in the cemetery. A massive rock formation overshadows the land,, and as the camera slowly pans towards those massive boulders, a small figure. appears in between two giant boulders, as if he was part of them and has been standing there from time immemorial. And when the camera cuts closer, we see the familiar visage of John Wayne dressed in his usual Western costumes and gear as John Elder, solid and still, observing the funeral from high above. This marriage of man and nature, star and landscape is something director Henry Hathaway does so well, and there’s no better star\actor who can embody this moment better than John Wayne. He has been a Western icon for so long, that he assumes the permanence and grandeur of landscape effortlessly, and the moment becomes mythic. Duke was at least 15 years too old for the part of John Elder. If you look at the dates on his father’s tombstone, you can see that he was either 63 or 64 when he died. Duke was 57 when he played this role. He was also 36 years older than Michael Anderson Jr., who played Bud, the youngest of the Elder siblings, making their surname particularly apt for Duke. But one accept these things without any questions in a John Wayne Western. Another thing we notice is that the action scenes, especially the ‘ambush on the bridge’ and the climax, is more brutal than most Duke movies. The action scenes are well handled though, and proved to be one of the major highlights of the film.
Another major highlight of the film is Elmer Bernstein’s superb score. After “The Magnificent Seven”, Bernstein had been the go-to guy for punchy western scores. Bernstein had given a spectacular score for Duke’s “The Comancheros”, and his score here shares The Magnificent Seven’s brassy exuberance and driving, syncopated backing, and is one of Bernstein’s best scores; it works superbly for both the rousing and somber moments. This film also marked a reunion of Duke and Dean Martin after their very popular pairing in Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo”. As in that film, Duke’s screen relationship with Dean Martin is easygoing; there is even a reference to “Rio Bravo” at the end, where we find Duke and Martin holed up in a besieged town waiting for the arrival of the U.S. Marshal. A key figure in the creation of the film was the legendary producer, Hal B Wallis. When he was an executive producer at Warner Bros. in 1930s and 40s, he was behind some of the greatest films made at the studio including “Casablanca”. But after some differences of opinion with Jack Warner, he left the studio and joined Paramount Pictures. “The Sons of Katie Elder” was a project that had been bouncing around the studio since 1955 until Wallis took it up. He had planned it to be one of his super productions on the lines of “Gunfight at the OK Corral“, with John Sturges directing and Burt Lancaster starring as John Elder. But that plan came to naught, when Lancaster rejected the film on the grounds that it was a routine western with unsympathetic characters. Dean Martin was always penciled in for the second lead, but everybody from James Stewart to Charlton Heston was considered for the role of John Elder until Duke signed on.
But days before shooting was to start, Duke found out that he had lung cancer. He requested Wallis to recast the picture with Kirk Douglas, in case he did not survive the surgery. But Wallis was adamant that nobody else but Duke would play John Elder. So, while Duke battled cancer, Wallis held firm in his determination to make The Sons of Katie Elder with Duke and nobody else; this is despite the pressure from the studio and his production-partner to proceed with Robert Mitchum or William Holden. For someone regarded as an old-Hollywood cold-blooded movie-mogul, Wallis demonstrated a remarkable degree of personal integrity and loyalty to a star with whom had no prior professional or personal relationship. Once Duke survived the surgery, and was declared fit to work, he cut shot his recuperation period and immediately went before cameras for the film. But Duke was not in peak form, he was overweight; the added pounds and the overall weakness, as well as constantly being out of breath at such high altitude, made it a very difficult shoot for him. On top of that, Henry Hathaway- whom Duke referred to as “the meanest son of a bitch in the business” didn’t show him any leniency; He worked him like a dog, forcing him to do most of his stunts himself- but somehow he got through the tough shoot. He knew his future in Hollywood depended on his completing this film, and though he hated Hathaway for what he put him through, he was ultimately grateful to the director, because it proved that He was still the same old “John Wayne.” Katie Elder was the first of Duke’s movies filmed in what would become his favorite western setting, a series of sets and locations in Durango, Mexico; and most of his film from hereon will be shot there.
The Sons of Katie Elder opened July 1, 1965, to good reviews and great business. The film placed number 15 on that year’s top-grossing films. It was also in the top 10 of the most successful Westerns of the 60s. Much of the success was mainly due to the publicity generated from Duke licking Cancer. In the beginning, Duke’s cancer was kept a secret from the public, but after successfully beating the disease, Duke decided to make it public; so as to provide hope for millions of people afflicted by the dreaded illness. The Mexican sets of “Katie Elder” had been swarming with press throughout the shoot; everybody eager to cover Duke’s first film shoot post his health scare- and Duke did not disappoint them; doing most of the stunts, like jumping into the river and getting dragged through the freezing waters, all by himself and right in front of the visiting press; Though Duke caught pneumonia on account of these actions, these press stories of Duke’s undiminished ability and courage ensured that the film received great publicity. Duke loved making movies, and was willing to go to any extend to make sure that he continued making them; and making commercially successful films was one way of ensuring it. The reaction of the public to Duke successfully surviving the illness was overwhelmingly positive. As he expected, it helped reduce the fear around the dreaded disease; Duke has proved that cancer could be cured, and one could actively get back to their former life. Earlier, when film stars had cancer or any such dreadful disease, the studios would go to any lengths to hush it up, but Duke triumphing cancer turned out be the most heroic thing he has ever done, whether in real-life or reel-life; and going public with it only strengthened the perception that Duke, in real-life, was as courageous, all-conquering, indestructible, and larger-than-life as he appeared on screen.