The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

sons_of_katie_elder_1965John Wayne is my all-time favorite. He is, was and always will be the coolest. By the mid 1960’s, he was still one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and around the world. His lifestyle — and smoking packs a day — took its toll though, with production on one of his movies being delayed for several months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One lung and two removed ribs later, Wayne came back with a vengeance, turning in one of his most underrated performances in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder.

It’s been 10 years since gunfighter John Elder (Wayne) has returned home. When he gets word that his mother, Katie, has died, John heads home to Clearwater, Texas. There he finds his three brothers, Tom (Dean Martin), a gambler/cardplayer, Matt (Earl Holliman), a hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest brother and a college student. John and his brothers find out how much things have changed, not only the circumstances that led to Katie’s death, but their father’s death some 6 months earlier. The family ranch is now owned by an aspiring businessman/rancher, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory). John intends to find out what happens, righting any wrongs that may have been done on the family, but mostly, he wants to honor Katie and leave the Elder name in a positive way.

This was an interesting turning point in Wayne’s career. The health scare woke the Hollywood legend up in a way. From this point on, Wayne finished his career with more fan-friendly roles. He knew what his fans wanted and delivered. They weren’t always the deepest or most hard-hitting roles — there were exceptions, The Shootist, True Grit, The Cowboys — as Wayne surrounded himself with family, friends and plenty of familiar faces. As for ‘Sons,’ I maintain that it belongs in the list with the trio of movies listed above. It is one of my favorite westerns, not just a John Wayne western.

A lot to recommend here. It’s an old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys western, but there’s more to it (in a big way). From director Henry Hathaway, ‘Sons’ blends familiar western elements and mixes in family drama and a bit of a murder mystery. Now that’s a unique premise! The filming locations in Durango, Mexico are a gem, a beautiful backdrop with cinematographer Lucien Ballard turning in one gorgeous scene after another. Oh, and music composer Elmer Bernstein delivers one of his best, most unheralded scores, including a highly memorable main theme. Give it a listen HERE.

I liked this movie as a kid, but I’ve loved it as an adult. Why’s that? I love the idea of family here, brought to life by Wayne, Martin, Holliman and Anderson. Their chemistry is impeccable. It’s simply perfect, brothers who haven’t seen each other in years and must get back together, reminiscing, bonding, arguing and fighting. Some of the movie’s best scenes are the quartet of brothers sitting at their Mom’s house talking…and arguing and even starting a fist fight. Katie ends up being an off-screen character too, a woman you feel like you’ve met by the end of the movie. Family is a key element in countless westerns, but it’s rare it felt this authentic from beginning to end.

It’s easy to shrug and say ‘Oh, that’s Wayne just playing the Duke.’ It’s fair depending on the role you look at. When he did it right though, it was just so perfect. He’s the iconic western hero — flawed but upright, fighting for what’s right, loyal and honest. His John Elder makes it look easy. Martin was always an underrated dramatic actor — just look at his other pairing with Wayne, 1959’s Rio Bravo — and he doesn’t disappoint here as Tom, always ready with a quip or a line or a gimmick. Holliman isn’t flashy, just solid as Matt, the brother who went straight. And Anderson holds his own as young Bud, no easy task with the talent around him.

A pretty cool cast backs up our brothers. James Gregory does what he does best, playing a smarmy, backstabbing villain with George Kennedy as his hired gun, Curley, Dennis Hopper as his bookish son, and Rodolfo Acosta as another enforcer. Martha Hyer plays Mary, a young woman who knew Katie well and tries to tell her boys what an impressive woman their Mom really was. Paul Fix and Jeremy Slate are excellent as Sheriff Billy, a calming, longtime peace officer and Deputy Ben, a hot-headed youngster trying to make his way. Plenty more familiar faces including Strother Martin, John Doucette, John Qualen, Rhys Williams, Sheldon Allman and even Karl Swenson playing dual roles.

At 121 minutes, ‘Sons’ is far from action-packed. There’s actually only one major set-piece, one major gunfight, set at the famously beautiful El Saltito waterfalls in Mexico. The beauty of it all? You don’t need the action. The story builds and builds, the tension growing as we learn the truth of what’s happened. It’s just a gem of a western that doesn’t always get its due. It should though. ‘Sons’ is an underrated classic.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): ****/****

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

gunfight_at_the_o-k-_corral_film_posterAmerican history in the wild west has a handful of instantly recognizable, oft-told stories that the film industry has visited time and time again. Just some include Custer’s Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Alamo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and maybe most famous, Wyatt Earp‘s involvement in one of history’s most famous gunfights. Here’s 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s the late 1870s and Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is on the trail of several outlaws who he can’t quite catch up with. In Texas, Earp meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a dentist turned gambler who’s dying of tuberculosis. The two become unlikely friends of sorts, each saving the other’s life in a do-or-die situation. Both men seem to be drawn to danger — for different reasons — but always seem to get through unscathed. That luck may be running out as circumstances drive both Earp and Holliday west to the mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona territory where a gang of rustlers, cowboys and gunfighters are a constant threat. All roads lead to a little two-bit corral where everything will be settled.

There aren’t too many directors better suited for a guy’s guy movie like this than John Sturges who would go on to direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the coming years (among many other action-oriented, male-heavy casts). Sturges (and screenwriter Leon Uris) does a fair job bringing to life one of the American west’s most well-known stories. It is a big film that looks gorgeous, especially the sweeping plains and desert shots. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin turns in a familiar-sounding score that suits the historical story well. Some cool location shooting in Old Tucson especially stands out, especially the actual shootout in the finale.

What surfaces again and again in O.K. Corral westerns is the friendship and the bond between noted peace officer Wyatt Earp and dying gambler Doc Holliday. By far, the performances from Lancaster and Douglas are the best parts of ‘Gunfight.’ Lancaster as Earp — sans mustache — is steadfast, stubborn, loyal and an incredibly capable man who lives by his word. Dying of tuberculosis, Douglas’s Holliday is living one day at a time in hard-drinking fashion. Through their many differences, the two men find they also have many similarities. Their chemistry is smooth sailing throughout. Douglas is an intense scene-stealer as Holliday, even if the character isn’t too much like the real-life dentist-turned-gambler.

The lead performances are solid, but still not enough to rescue a western that has glacial pacing early. At 122 minutes, ‘Gunfight’ is slow to say the least. It takes 73 minutes for Wyatt and Doc to even reach Tombstone. Getting there is an episodic story that has some potential but typically gets bogged down too much. Go figure, there’s unnecessary love interests, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Doc’s girlfriend with who he has a less than stable relationship, and Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful gambler who catches Wyatt’s eye. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s little historical truth to anything. Yes, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in Tombstone, there was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral…and yeah, that’s about it.

One of Sturges’ specialties as a director was leading the way for male-dominated casts, like Great Escape and Mag7 among others. The star power isn’t huge here, but western fans will appreciate the depth of familiar faces you’ll see. John Ireland plays quick-on-the-draw gunfighter Johnny Ringo while baddie Lyle Bettger plays the slimy Ike Clanton. Also look for Dennis Hopper, Frank Faylen, and Jack Elam as other members of the Clanton gang. The underused Earp brothers include DeForest Kelly, Martin Milner and John Hudson. There’s also supporting parts for Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef and Olive Carey.

Now how about that titular gunfight? In a movie that’s generally light on action and gunplay in general, the showdown at the O.K. Corral runs about 5 minutes — about 4 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the real gunfight — and packs quite a punch. Again, the history is garbage relative to the real event, but as a cinematic gunfight, it is pretty exciting. A mixed bag in the end with a fair share of positives and negatives mixed in one bag. Western fans will definitely get some enjoyment out of it, if for nothing else than the casting of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Also worth checking out? The very catchy, whistle-worthy theme song sung by Frankie Laine which you can listen to HERE. Listen to the soundtrack itself HERE.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957): ** 1/2 /****