It seems that as long as you put a six shooter in his belt, an unforgettable line of tough guy wisdom in his mouth and a mosey in his step, John Wayne could do no wrong as he swaggered through the prairie fighting wrongs. However, by the mid sixties, even the Duke was looking a little long in the tooth. Oh sure, the movies insisted that he could still four-shot, out-ride and generally out-man every other cow-poke in the West, but now his roles seemed to cast him at the creakier end of the spectrum – such as that of John Elder, the eldest son in Henry Hathaway’s The Sons Of Katie Elder. While Hathaway eventually went on to direct Wayne in arguably his greatest role in True Grit (ironically, another western about aging), here, the Duke’s advancing years stand out a bit and the age gap between the youngest and oldest Elder seem to be longer than some people’s entire life span. Back in the sixties it was generally simply excepted, but watching it now you can’t help but think that the most impressive part of the beloved Katie Elder might well have been her uterus…
On the day of her funeral, the four misbegotten sons of Katie Elder gather to send her off and lament that not one of them managed to live up to the high expectations she had of them. Now, parents always set unrealistic targets for their children, but even the most understanding mother would be a little bummed at the way her brood turned out; eldest Elder, John, is an infamous gun fighter who feels the need to watch the service from a distance, next in line is Tom, a professional gambler who would bet on literally anything, which leaves Matt, an failed hardware dealer and Bud, the youngest who’s in his first year of mining college (you had to go to college for mining?) and already has plans to drop out the second he finds out John is back in town.
As the quartet reminisce and bicker about the guilt that they obviously feel about being no-shows in their mother’s waning years, they find out that their mother’s final years were even more miserable than they realised as she barely had two pennies to rub together after her husband lost their ranch in a card game and was subsequently shot in the back under mysterious circumstances.
Sensing that some kind of underhanded business was most likely going on in their absence, the brothers Elder decide to take a closer look at the doings of Morgan Hastings, a gunsmith with big plans for the town of Clearwater and current owner of the Elder ranch only to find that the entrepreneur has stocked up on gunslingers to pad out the men on his employ. It soon occurs to the brothers that despite all the kind words from the townsfolk, something in Clearwater stinks worse than unswept stables and in an attempt to get to the bottom of things, the Elder siblings find themselves framed for murder and hunted by the law.
Maybe sometimes classic westerns simply aren’t on my wavelength, but for the most of this movie I couldn’t help but think that for such a rich story concept, The Sons Of Katie Elder seems to constantly take the long route around the barn. As part of the audience, we already seem to be about four steps ahead of the story as Wayne struts about town, trying to find the truth about what happened to his family’s land and so John Elder’s sleuthing seems horribly laboured.
Thankfully, Katie Elder’s first and third acts manage to off-set the rather rambly middle thanks to some interesting casting with the most noticable addition being the Rat Pack’s most infamous boozer (actually an act), Dean Martin, who plays to type as a skeezy gambler who’s final act push into heroism ends up being a truly poignant moment. Also popping up is “young” Dennis Hopper – who somehow still looks forty five – who plays the incredibly panicky son of of the villain and who’s insipid whining amusingly goes waaaay into the red at a moments notice.
The first section of the movie brings the brothers together after a number of years and its genuinely fun to watch them reconnect by chiefly having a massive brawl that makes the scraps that would usually end an episode of the old Batman TV series look like Murder She Wrote, the banter between them is sparky and fun like a good, old fashioned oater should be and after the relatively slow middle the finale ramps shit up with gun fights and sieges as John belatedly shoots his way to the truth. Also making things stick nicely in the final straight is the fact that not all the brothers are guaranteed to make it to the credits in one piece and whenever one falls, it turns out to be legitimately affecting.
However, despite being typically well acted and directed, that saggy midsection throws off the pace somewhat as it slowly creeps through aspects of the story you’ve already long since figured out; not to mention the fact that George Kennedy’s henchman is a suprisingly ineffectual villain – but The Sons Of Katie Elder still manages to be upper level cowboy shit and even managed to inspire a lose modern day remake in the Mark Wahlberg thriller Four Brothers, so I guess that’s something…
A typically above average John Wayne vehicle that’s bolstered by its cast but thrown off by some on the nose plotting, The Sons Of Katie Elder still remains a prime example of the genre, but speaking personally, there’s more exciting movies out there that allows Wayne to ply his trade in far more interesting ways.