Saturday 23 July 2022

Movie Review: The Sons Of Katie Elder (1965)

A robust western, The Sons Of Katie Elder features a rich set of characters and a straightforward but still engaging plot centred on a quest for truth and justice. 

When their mother Katie dies, the four Elder brothers reconvene in their hometown of Clearwater, Texas. John (John Wayne) is a notorious gunslinger, Tom (Dean Martin) is a gambler, and Matt (Earl Holliman) is a struggling businessman. The youngest Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.) is attending college and the only brother who can still make something useful out of his life.

John learns that gunsmith Morgan Hastings (James Gregory) and his son Dave (Dennis Hopper) now own the Elder's family ranch. Morgan claims he won the property fair and square in a card game with the Elders' father, who was shot in the back that very night. Morgan is worried enough about his safety to hire gunslinger Curley (George Kennedy) for protection. Sheriff Billy Wilson and his upright deputy Ben Latta are eager to keep a lid on any violence, but emotions start to run high.

While the basic righting-old-wrongs plot of The Sons Of Katie Elder is familiar, director Henry Hathaway enriches the drama with relevant themes. Prominent threads include defending an imperfect family's honour, individuals striving for a better future, brothers getting reacquainted, and an awakening sense of guilt about having let down their mom. The film is stocked with lawmen and bad guys, and conflicts within each group add spice. The aesthetics are dusty bright, and Elmer Bernstein's music is suitably magnificent.

The plot's strongest foundation is a never-seen character. Katie is already dead when the brothers gather, but she is nevertheless a strong presence, often represented by her empty rocking chair. Various aquaintencances, including winsome neighbour Mary Gordon (Martha Hyer), take time to describe Katie's essence to her sons. An image of a determined, kind, crafty, proud, and resourceful woman emerges. She was also obviously disappointed by her three eldest sons, but anyway talked them up. Katie pinned her fading hopes on Bud, but now that she is gone he most wants to emulate gunslinger John.

A generous running length of two hours is prolonged by an unnecessary and truncated horse-drive sub-quest, and Hathaway takes his time building the central conflict with the Hastings. John is initially careful to knock back provocations and avoid unnecessary violence, eager to just establish facts and allow the law to solve the mystery of his father's death. It's only when Hastings reveals his truly evil colours that the film shifts into open hostilities, and the final act features two well-staged shoot-outs.

Forced to confront their shortcomings, The Sons Of Katie Elder finally seek to make their mom proud, in a demonstration of better late than never.

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