Directed by Henry Hathaway
June 24, 1965
Four brothers come back together for the funeral of their mother set themselves on a path of revenge to avenge the swindling of their mother and the murder of their father.
The Sons of Katie Elder stars John Wayne, Dean Martin, Earl Holliman, and Michael Anderson Jr. as the titular brothers. The eldest John (John Wayne-they did not try to hard there) is a famous professional gunman, Tom (Dean Martin) is a professional gambler, Matt (Earl Holliman) is an unsuccessful hardware dealer, and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) is the youngest brother who is still in school. Their varying personalities clash almost immediately with John acting as a tempering force.
This is a great performance by John Wayne. John feels the most guilt over disappointing his mother and begins trying to make things right by ensuring the youngest stays in school and those that wronged his family pay.
Martin is the charming rogue of the family who is later revealed to be on the run from a murder charge. Tom is a gambler and a touch of a conman. Dean Martin basically plays his singer stage persona in the role.
Earl Holliman did plenty of film and television in his career. He was just always a good actor and here is no different as Matt Elder. Upon writing this I decided to look up a little on Holliman and the man is still alive.
The youngest son Bud is the one that the mother and eventually the three older brothers pin their remaining hopes for the future of the Elder family on. In the end he is to be their monument to their mother. Bud however wants to follow John as a gunfighter rather than pursue an education.
I was surprised to see Dennis Hopper in this in a supporting role as Dave Hastings, the son of the film’s villain. Hopper is much more muted here than he would be four years later in the original True Grit. He still displays the Hopper Mannerisms that would serve as a signature years later. He is good but what made him stand out when he was older does not work as well when he was younger.
Hopper credited John Wayne in a 1994 interview on The Charlie Rose Show with saving his career. His behavior at the time kept him from getting work for seven years. Hopper was the son-in-law of Wayne’s friend Margaret Sullavan and Wayne hired Hopper for the part of Dave and later for the role of Moon in the original True Grit which was also directed by Hathaway.
The film’s villain of Morgan Hastings (James Gregory) is the usual unscrupulous of land baron who will do anything to control as much land in the territory as he can. You may recognize Gregory from his appearances on such shows as Barney Miller, Star Trek TOS, and the original The Twilight Zone. His voice was a unique deep and gravely one.
George Kennedy in my opinion was a seriously underrated actor. The more of his older work I see, the more I believe that. He was generally a good actor but there were times when he would shine as a villain and here he really shines as a gunman named Curley hired by Hastings to deal with John Elder and I have trouble reconciling that with his performance in the three Naked Gun films. That man had some real range as an actor. I think part of that though is when he did a film just for a paycheck, he did some really bad stuff just for a paycheck. It was not stuff you could go “meh” at. It was stuff that he probably should have been a little ashamed of doing because he was too good for it.
Paul Fix as Sheriff Billy Wilson is one of two John Wayne regulars that shows up in this film that I can think of. Not that it is a bad thing. Fix had the look and voice and mannerisms made for Westerns. After all he was also the sheriff in the classic Chuck Connors series The Rifleman. Billy was the more levelheaded character not given to passions and just trying to exact justice.
Wayne regular Strother Martin shows up as Jeb Ross in a scene where Tom demonstrates exactly what got him in trouble before the film. Tom uses a glass eye in a charming scheme to get free alcohol at a local saloon where he eventually gets Ross to pay for his drink.
We learn that Katie Elder was a hard-working and proud woman who after the loss of the ranch worked even harder to secure a future for her youngest son through a little bit of creative trickery which illuminates the strength and determination of her character. She was beloved by her community and as her sons attempt to settle her affairs they learn about their mother and also come to realize that they did not deserve her and have failed her by not being good men.
This is a great movie directed by Henry Hathaway who would later direct Wayne in the classic True Grit. What Hathaway was able to get out of Wayne in this film I think proves something I have been saying: that directors got lazy with Wayne and did not force him to act. Hathaway seems to have been able to force Wayne to bring out his talent rather than just use star his power to get through the film. Not enough directors did that.
There are no shocking twists or turns. We know from the get-go that the landowner was responsible for not only the death of the father but also for swindling the mother and father out of their ranch. The interesting part of the film is how they go about trying to prove what they know in their gut.
The Sons of Katie Elder is just great throughout. It never lags and just has steady nonstop drama interspersed with moments of action. This is such a well-done movie. It in my opinion one of the better Westerns I have seen. And everyone turns in an amazing performance helmed by Hathaway.
The Sons of Katie Elder is a classic Western. It is a great story with a fantastic cast. This is most definitely a watch it!
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