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): ****/****

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