From the four winds they came, the four brothers, their eyes smoking and their fingers itching…
Not itching that much, truth be told. In his first film after major cancer surgery, John Wayne takes the lead as the eldest of the four brothers Elder in The Sons of Katie Elder. They’ve returned to the sleepy town of Clearwater to bury their mother, and in so doing decide to not only discover the truth behind their father’s death and loss of the family farm, but also fulfill what they think would be Katie’s wishes for the yougest son, Bud.
The Sons of Katie Elder marked the end of an era of sorts, though nobody at the time realized it. It marked the last time John Wayne, nearing 60 at the time, played anything resembling a romantic lead and also the last role where Wayne’s character didn’t become laced with the crotchety air that his final roles exhibited. After this, he definitely took on more grandfatherly roles, though perhaps out of necessity rather than desire.
In many ways The Sons of Katie Elder is simply a mundane oater, too slow to develop and overly long for most viewers. Though the second half is quite action-packed, the first half is slow on the verge of being ponderous, though full of exposition and character development. Most notably we get more familiar with the Elder boys.
What helps the picture and has helped its image recover a bit since critical panning on release is a strong cast. First of course, is Wayne himself. Willing himself to a miraculous recovery he looks mostly like his older self, though clearly a bit more haggard as a result of the surgery a few months prior. Though production was delayed, the contingency plans which included at various times Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum or William Holden replacing Wayne proved to be unneeded.
Though clearly straining just a touch in the higher elevations where filming took place, Wayne performs admirably throughout, even performing most of his own stunts during the action sequences. Wayne’s only real misfortune happens only in his casting itself. He’s not only a bit old relative to the rest of the sons (especially Bud), but his age also makes any realism in his relationship with Mary Gordon (Martha Hyer) sorely lacking. In reality, this love interest storyline never takes off throughout the picture, seemingly tacked on at random. In any regards the resulting age difference between the two is borderline creepy.
Filling out the siblings is Dean Martin as Tom, Michael Anderson Jr. as Bud and Earl Holliman as Matt. Martin, in his second film with Wayne (the first being Rio Bravo) is a wonderful match sidekick. He best two scenes are two opposite ends of the spectrum. In the first (on the comedic side) he demonstrates how to raffle off his glass eye for liquor while in the second (on the dramatic side) he sneaks out of barn late in the film to kidnap one of their pursuers.
Unfortunately the other two brothers fare not so well. Michael Anderson as Bud seems a bit overawed by both Wayne and Martin and one thinks that Dennis Hopper (who plays the villian’s son Dave Hastings) may have been a better choice in this meatier role. If nothing else, Hopper had no real awe of his more famous costars as they’d become drinking buddies. Holliman as Matt has potential but seems underutilized, though he too perhaps seems a bit starstruck.
George Kennedy is setup as the villain initially, complete with black wardrobe, as a hired gun to help handle the Elders. Usually one would expect a dramatic showdown between Curly (Kennedy) and the Elders. Though he does meet his end, it’s in a far from compelling fashion and robs the audience a bit. Perhaps another opportunity lost.
The other antagonist, James Gregory as Morgan Hastings, is more than adequate but seems unable to fill the void left by Curly’s early exit. Though making it to the finale engagement with Wayne, his end too is almost a bit anticlimactic. Overall Morgan seems more angry and self-centered rather than evil and it’s hard to take much interest in him.
The Sons of Katie Elder truly doesn’t deserve the panning it has traditionally been given and it’s pleasing to see it recharged a bit of late. Produced by Hal Wallis and directed by Henry Hathaway (who would direct Wayne a few years late in his only Oscar winning performance in True Grit), the film is a well put together big budget production. Though not as visually striking as John Ford’s westerns, it still bears Hathaway’s trademark touches of atmospheric exteriors and location shooting.
Though lauded, Elmer Bernstein’s score isn’t quite as memorable as say, his work in The Magnificent Seven, but nevertheless it’s a more than worth entry in the Bernstein canon, resembling the earlier film quite a bit especially in its rousing main theme. The resulting soundtrack even includes the song “The Sons of Katie Elder” sung by Johnny Cash, though I don’t recall hearing it during the film.
In spite of a few plot holes (for example, if the Elders’ father passed away six month prior to the mother, did the sons not return to town for his funeral?) and a sluggish start, the film is more than worth two hours of your time. Plus, you get to see Wayne club George Kennedy with an ax handle!