Saturday, July 24, 2021

"The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965)

This is my favorite John Wayne movie.  My favorite American western.  My third-favorite movie of all time.  I absolutely love this movie.  

Why?  Um, because I love it.

Does that make any sense?  It's a total thing, for me.  There are some books, movies, actors, actresses that have been my favorite for so long that they simply are my favorite because they are my favorite.  Like, I can't imagine not loving them.  I wouldn't dream of not pointing them out and awarding "my favorite" honors to them.  I simply must.

It's not hard to see WHY this first became a favorite for me when I was a teen, though.  To begin with, you have John Wayne playing a Misunderstood Gunman who is trying to see that his father's murder is solved.  Then you have Dean Martin as his tricky, sly brother.  I mean, honestly, just watching those two pros play off each other is enough to make me love a movie.  Witness how wonderful they are together in Rio Bravo (1959).  Wayne and Martin were buddies offscreen as well, and I think that helps their rapport feel very natural, especially when they're playing brothers here.

The story opens with three of the Elder brothers waiting for a train.  Tom (Dean Martin) irreverently bets that he can predict where the train will stop.  Matt (Earl Holliman) chastises him for not being respectful of the occasion.  After all, they've only come back to town to attend a funeral.  Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) doesn't say much.  He's more focused on who he's expecting to be on that train.  It's a small scene, but we get such a solid sense of who each brother is just from these few minutes.

To their shock, the only person who gets off the train is a surly stranger, a gunfighter called Curley (George Kennedy).  He heads off to call on Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), who hired him as a bit of extra protection, just in case trouble comes calling because of that funeral.

Disappointed that the eldest Elder brother didn't see fit to arrive on that train, the other brothers decide to go ahead and have their mother's funeral without him.  At the funeral, we learn a lot about their mother, Katie Elder.  The minister eulogizes her as "a friend to all, a comforter to the sick... a woman who wanted nothing for herself, wanted only to give rather than to receive."  After the ceremony, neighbors tell the brothers funny stories about Katie, even show them a baby named after her.  But Tom, Matt, and Bud are mostly focused on the fact that their oldest brother never showed up.

Except, he did.  High in the rocks overlooking the cemetery, John Elder (John Wayne) watches his mother's funeral from afar.  It's not until the mourners have left, and the burial detail too, that he finally comes down to pay his respects.  I dig a guy who does the unexpected and totally flummoxes his potential enemies that way.  And John Elder does this again and again.  Oh, he's a wise one, all right.

The Elder Boys learn that their father's death six months earlier has remained unsolved.  Oh, and by the way, he was shot in the back.  Oh, and by the way, that was the same night he lost his whole huge ranch of prime Texas grazing land in a card game.  Yeah, that's not suspicious at all.  Nope, nothing to see here.  Time for the Elder Boys to just go their merry way and ignore all that suspiciousness, yessiree.

Hah.  Obviously, they must investigate.  They set about asking all kinds of questions of everybody in town who might know something about that card game where their father lost his ranch.  Or about his death.  Or about any unsettled affairs their mother might have left behind.

Guess who won their family's ranch in a card game?  Morgan Hastings, the guy who hired Curley.  And speaking of Curley, he is one mean sonofagun.  He nearly drowns a man who didn't answer a question the way he liked.  He goads Bud into a gunfight that Bud obviously could never win.  He leers and sneers and cackles like a maniac.  I have nothing good to say about Curley.  Hanging would be too good for him.  Ugh.

Anyway, the Elder Boys can't seem to get any answers about their father's death, so they decide that they're going to get the money to send Bud through college as a way to make their mother's dreams come true for at least one of them.  The other three may be big disappointments but, as John says, "Katie wins this one."  To get that money, they make a deal to drive 200 horses north to Colorado and sell them to the miners there, and drop Bud off at college in Colorado Springs on the way home. 

This leads to a brief, happy interlude of the four brothers all getting along really well and all working together toward a common goal.  And also some gorgeous shots of horses running around in Texas (well, actually Mexico, but close enough).  This is my favorite part of the whole movie.

Only hitch to this happy new family life they've found is that someone shoots Sheriff Billy Mitchell (Paul Fix) in the back while he's on his way to the Elder home.  The sheriff was trying to bring Tom Elder in because he's got his name on a wanted poster.  Obviously, that means the Elders shot him from ambush before he ever got to their house to tell them why he was there, just because they're evil, or so Certain People would have us believe.  So now gung-ho deputy Ben Latta (Jeremy Slate) is determined to see justice done for his old boss, who got shot in the back exactly like the Elder Boys' pa.  Funny how he didn't care at all about that earlier shooting, but now that it's personal, he's all fired up.  And yet, Ben just can't seem to understand why the Elder Boys would have felt the same.  Ben is very, very young still.

MAJOR SPOILERS in the next two paragraphs!  Skip to below the picture of John Wayne silhouetted against a fire if you don't want to know how it all ends up.

Anyway, the Elders get captured, then get free again, except Matt dies in the process, and Bud gets wounded.  John and Tom decide they are going to take care of Bud forever and make sure he gets raised right, and that will start with finding out the truth about their father's murder once and for all.  

They finally get their answers from Morgan Hastings' son Dave (Dennis Hopper), just before he dies from a gunshot wound.  And then, it's just a matter of time before we reach the explosive finale.

Gee, I have no idea why I would love this movie, do you?  Families, siblings, justice, a murder mystery, Texas, John Wayne... it's only a fairly comprehensive list of my favorite things, that's all.

Although Katie Elder never appears in this movie, having died before it began, her presence permeates it.  Everyone in town tells the brothers how wonderful she was, how she helped them or befriended them or stood squarely on her own two feet despite her sons basically turning their backs on her and her husband dying in a suspicious way -- there is never any mention of her complaining or feeling sorry for herself.  She did fancy sewing and gave guitar lessons to earn her keep.  She gave freely of herself to anyone who needed her friendship or advice or compassion.  

One of the things that really fascinates me in this film is the theme of guilt that runs through this movie.  The sons all feel guilty for not having been better sons to their mother.  For not having valued her.  They stopped writing letters, they stopped sending money to help her and their father, they stopped coming back to visit.  Even Bud only went to college because he was scared he was going to get arrested for stealing a horse, not because his mother wanted him to.  None of them were there for her when their father died.  None of them came home for his funeral. Guilt, guilt, guilt!

But the thing is, Katie Elder felt guilty too.  She confided in Mary Gordon (Martha Hyer) that she felt like she'd failed to raise her sons correctly.  Why else would John and Matt run off to be gunfighters and Tom to become a gambler?  Why else would they have so little to do with her anymore?  She blamed Texas for stealing her sons for her, but I think that really, she blamed herself.  The actions of a child are not necessarily the fault of the parent -- but it's hard to convince the parent of that.  Katie even lied to those around her, saying that her fine, big sons were still sending money home to help support her.  She felt guilty for how they turned out, and she tried to hide it from just about everyone.

Everyone but Mary.  Katie told Mary all about her sons, even let her read the letters they wrote to her years ago.  She confided the truth in Mary.  At first, Mary confronts the brothers with their failures, trying to make them feel guilty for having neglected their mother.  But when she sees that they already carry that guilt, she softens.  John gives her some of Katie's things, like her favorite rocking chair.  John and Mary share a few wistful scenes, filled with a sense that if only things had been a little different, they might have had a future together.  By the end of the film, so much has changed that I sometimes hope they might find a way to share life in the future, even if it's only as very good friends.

This is the first movie John Wayne made after having part of a lung and two ribs removed because of lung cancer.  Filming was delayed so he could have the surgery and recover, but he insisted on starting filming as soon as the doctors would allow because he knew all the people involved in the filming were depending on him for their livelihood.  Between shots, he relied on an oxygen tank to keep him going, as most of the film was shot in Durango, Mexico, which is a much higher elevation than California, and his missing lung made breathing difficult.  

He insisted on doing as many of his own stunts as they would allow, to show that cancer had not slowed him down too much.  One of those stunts was seemingly easy -- he got pulled into a river during a playful altercation with the other main characters.  But the water was cold, and he was still recovering from cancer and surgery, which led to his catching a bad cold that nearly turned into pneumonia.  But it didn't, and filming was completed on schedule.

Is this movie family friendly?  Yes.  It has a grand total of one cuss word in it.  There's a fistfight, a couple of gunfights, some fatalities, some alcohol consumption, some dangerous situations.  I showed it to my kids (13, 11, 9) a couple weeks ago.

This has been my last contribution for Legends of Western Cinema Week.  I saved it for today because today is the National Day of the Cowboy!  And what more perfect way to celebrate, right?

Today is also the last day to enter my giveaway.  I'll choose the winners tomorrow!  And I'll post the answers for my Western Movie Casting Trivia Game tomorrow too.


  1. I so enjoyed your article on The Sons of Katie Elder. Your fondness for the movie comes through so clearly and enhanced my memories of not only the film, but the times I enjoyed it as well.

    Three cheers for Elmer Bernstein and that strange day Karl Swenson went to work and found he wasn't the bartender but a doctor.

    1. Caftan Woman, I'm so glad you liked this! It's lovely to find someone else who also appreciates it. A real-life friend and I bonded extra-closely one day when we discovered we both could quote pretty much the entire script from memory :-D

      I think this is my favorite Elmer Bernstein score. Or, at the very least, it ties with The Magnificent Seven. I'm thinking of re-releasing all my posts about movie soundtracks, copying them over here to my blog from the blog where I guest-posted them. I just love talking about movie music!

      And haha, yeah, it took me years to notice that Karl Swenson plays both the bartender and Doc Isdell! Maybe they're actually brothers, the bartender and the doctor. There'd be a fun story there ;-) There's someone else with dual roles too, IIRC, like the blacksmith shows up in the posse with a mustache or something? Hmm.

  2. A John Wayne, Dean Martin pair-up could be a fun dynamic to watch. Love those movies that you watch years ago and they still hold up to you over the years.

    1. Elizabeth, they are awesome in this AND in Rio Bravo! It's such a joy to watch two total pros play off each other :-)

      And yes, it's always lovely to discover you still love a movie just as much as you used to.

  3. Anna and I watched this movie together twice in two days... I don't know what was so attractive about it, but we loved it! That theme song gave me nostalgia before I'd even seen the movie. I was kind of depressed that Matt got killed, as Earl Holliman can be sooo darn charming, as he was in this movie. You wrote a great review, it made me laugh several times. Thanks a lot!

    1. Irene, well, I can't say I'm surprised that you watched this twice in two days because it is excellent fun.

      It is sad that Matt dies. I really like Earl Holliman in the movie Giant, which I grew up with.

      Glad you enjoyed this!

  4. Rachel, I really enjoyed your wonderful write-up of THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER(1965), which is a favorite of mine. I first saw the movie on THE ABC SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE in 1968 and several times since. I absolutely love the way you described why you love this movie. Your reasoning makes perfect sense too me, because you're a fan. That is why reading your personal review of THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER is a joyful delight.

    The movie is based loosely on the true story of the Marlow brothers of Indian Territory(Oklahoma). Here is an article about what actually happened in and on the outskirts of Graham, Texas in 1889.

    1. Walter, I'm glad you enjoyed my review!

      I did read somewhere once that it was inspired by four actual brothers. Thanks to the link about them -- I will check that out!

  5. One of my favorite of Wayne's westerns too. And the score is absolutely fantastic! Though, I do think they should have included Johnny Cash's song over the end credits!

    1. Annie, I didn't even know there was a Johnny Cash song until I got the soundtrack on LP maybe ten years ago (and now it's been released to CD at last too). It's always a little unexpected to run into it in the soundtrack, but I've grown to like it :-)

  6. Okay, I've been at a wedding all weekend and didn't have time to comment on this post before, even though I've been awaiting it so eagerly! I knew you loved this movie, but I had no real idea what it was about.

    This is an awesome, thorough review, as always! I can absolutely see why you love the movie, with its themes of justice, loyalty, and family. I'm especially fascinated by what you said about Katie Elder's presence and personality permeating the film, even though we never actually "meet" her. Interesting storytelling choice! And of course, I'm predisposed to like her, sharing her name and all. ;)

    1. Katie, I'm glad to have been able to elucidate what this movie is all about :-) It's oddly heartwarming, moreso than many westerns of its era.

  7. How fitting to save your favorite for the last day of the party! I (sort of) went the same route with my Quigley review.

    I always think of you whenever I see this film at a thrift store. ;)

    1. Olivia, yeah, I was thinking about posting it first, but I just had to save it for the last day to kind of crown the whole thing.

      I like that you associate it with me :-D


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