The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
“If Texas couldn’t tame ’em …could she?”
Director: Henry Hathaway
Cast: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Martha Hyer
Synopsis: Ranch owner Katie Elder’s four sons determine to avenge the murder of their father and the swindling of their mother.
The Sons of Katie Elder was John Wayne’s first movie following the removal of a cancerous lung, but he doesn’t look any the worse for wear because of it. His age is a big problem in this movie though, and contributes to the lack of chemistry between the four brothers of the title. It seems that the parts were obviously cast with box office draw in mind rather than realism, which is why you have the frankly bizarre situation of Wayne and Dean Martin playing brothers, and the actor playing the oldest Elder sibling being nearly forty years older than the youngest (Michael Anderson Jr).
The story takes place in the late-19th Century, with the four brothers re-united in their home town of Clearwater, Texas, for the funeral of their mother. The three younger brothers, Tom (Dean Martin — Road to Bali, Marriage on the Rocks), Matt (Earl Holliman — The Bridges at Toko-Ri) and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr) — await their older brother’s arrival, but the only passenger to alight from the train is a hired gun named Curley (George Kennedy — Cool Hand Luke), who’s been employed by local firearms merchant Morgan Hastings (James Gregory — PT109), the man who won the Elder’s ranch from the boy’s father in a rigged blackjack game six months earlier. Elder subsequently ended up dead, and with the killer never found, Hastings is a little bit edgy about all four of the sons being back in town at the same time.
The elder Elder (Wayne — Stagecoach, Rio Lobo) watches his mother’s funeral from a distance. He’s a notorious gunfighter — and a pretty good one considering his advancing years — who’s reluctant to draw attention to himself, so it’s only after the funeral is over that he reunites with his younger brothers. It soon becomes apparent that there’s something not right about the way their father lost his ranch and the fact that their mother lived in poverty for the remaining six months of her life, and they set about trying to find out exactly what happened while they were away.
The disparity in ages between the youngest and oldest Elder brother is just one of a number of problems suffered by The Sons of Katie Elder. The film possesses all the constituents of a classic big budget Western, including a stirring score by Elmer Bernstein, but it lacks any real atmosphere. Of course, no movie is going to work if there’s no chemistry between the leads, but it’s not just that. Director Henry Hathaway’s uninspired and workmanlike direction suggests a man turning up for his pay cheque, and despite the generous budget and star power, The Sons of Katie Elder too often has the dull, flat visuals of a TV movie, with little flair or imagination in Hathaway’s use of veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard’s camera. The screenplay is credited to three writers, which suggest re-writes in an attempt to get the script into some kind of shape, but it gives little real insight into the characters and offers nothing new to a genre which, by the mid-to-late 1960s had begun to show signs of finally losing popularity with the public. It does liven up in the final half-hour, when it focuses on action rather than tedious and unsuccessful attempts at creating some kind of camaraderie — and then conflict — between the four brothers, but it’s far too late by then.
Wayne’s health following major surgery must have been a major concern during production, but there’s little here that sets him apart from the Wayne of old which, with a star like Wayne, is never a bad thing. It’s those around him who fail to rally to the cause, with Dean Martin stuck in a lifeless role, and Earl Holliman providing little more than background noise. Michael Anderson Jr at least makes his presence known, but he overacts so outrageously that you wish his older screen brothers would give him a few more slaps than they actually do. Overall, The Sons of Katie Elder makes for a disappointing movie that probably offered audiences more reassurance about the health of its leading man than it did about the genre he represented.
(Reviewed 25th April 2014)