The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
If you like westerns and John Wayne, then for my money it’s nearly impossible not to love this movie. As a matter of fact it might be the most enjoyable “popcorn” western adventure that the Duke ever made. Not only does it reteam him with Dean Martin after their successful union in Rio Bravo but there is one heck of a supporting cast surrounding the duo. Pen in hand I wrote down the names of seventeen other well known faces while watching this Henry Hathaway shoot’em up. Eighteen if you count Karl Swenson playing two supporting roles in the same movie! See if you can spot them.
It had been a little too long since I’d sat back and watched this one so I took the opportunity to revisit it on Father’s day with Number 2 son Kirk. Truly a great way to spend a couple hours, father and son style.
There are no surprises here when it comes to plot. That’s clearly defined in the first few minutes of the film. Dino, Earl Holliman and Michael Anderson are awaiting older brother John, at the train station. The quartet are reuniting for the funeral of Katie Elder, their mother. Duke is a no show but Sheriff Paul Fix doesn’t like the look of big George Kennedy arriving in town and asking the whereabouts of James Gregory’s ranch. The ranch that at one time had belonged to the Elder family. Hmmm.
Duke quietly watches the funeral from afar and when the procession has left is confronted by his long time acting pal, Sheriff Fix. Not looking for trouble, Duke is shocked to discover that the family ranch isn’t their’s anymore. His father was murdered, shot in the back and on the same night he lost the ranch in a card game to Gregory and his nervous son, Dennis Hopper. I think that just about sums up where this plot is headed. After all, a man has got to do what a man has got to do. But there is so much action and character performers on the way to the finale that it’s just too much fun to pass up.
Romance? Well producer Hal Wallis does his best by ensuring that Martha Hyer is cast as the girl Duke remembers being the skinny little kid who lived next to the Fergusons. Needless to say, Martha seems to have that marrying look in here eye while sizing up the big guy. Gregory is the land baron with plenty of money and wants no part of Duke and Dino muscling their way into his scheming to buy up the territory. That’s where Kennedy comes in with his sidekick, Rodolfo Acosta. Kennedy keeps looking for a fight and isn’t above slippery tactics in order to send the Elder boys on a one way ticket to Boot Hill.
Sheriff Fix wants to keep the peace and is the wise old timer while his deputy, Jeremy Slate is convinced that Duke and the bro’s are all no good and when given the chance will make an arrest at the urging of Gregory and the action will escalate to the fade out when Duke and Dino take on Hopper and Gregory, the man with the authoritative voice who for me will always be the power hungry General Ursus. “The only good human is a dead human!”
For those of us who really enjoy the character actors who can make films memorable, there are plenty in here and what’s special is that each one gets to emerge from the background here for a scene or two of their own. People like John Doucette who banters with Duke, Strother Martin who plays the fool with Dino as does Percy Helton as a store keeper. John Qualen losing his temper with young Slate, Rhys Williams meeting the Elder boys just as their brotherly brawl comes to an end. Doucette is also involved here in a scene with George Kennedy that leads to one of my all time favorite John Wayne clips. Never has an axe handle been used to better effect in the history of cinema!
Add in John Litel and James Westerfield and that’s an amazing cast surrounding Dean and Duke complimented by a rousing Elmer Bernstein score. I’ve never made any secret of my affection for the films of John Wayne so it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of this which in part was a statement film for Big John. This film was made following his first bout with cancer and the loss of a lung. It was meant to prove to the public that he was still at the top of his game and the movie world in general. Dean Martin? If it wasn’t for his vocal talents, he could have made a career playing westerners like Duke, Scott and McCrea.
Most of the actors here would appear in more than one or two of Duke’s on screen adventures and were basically part of the John Wayne stock company and a couple the John Ford stock company by extension. Most notably John Qualen and Paul Fix. But others like Strother, Hopper and Slate would surface later on in True Grit among others. With an actor of Duke’s stature, I’ve always enjoyed seeing the regulars turn up in his films allowing you to feel like you’re in on the family affair too.
Now men, no one says you have to wait for Father’s Day next year to enjoy this one so go for it. Ladies, you feel free to sit right in and ride shotgun.
The first John Wayne original one sheet I ever scored? Yes sir. A 1965 Sons of Katie Elder that I bought over 25 years ago. Still tucked away here in the vault. Note Jeremy Slate landed his name on the poster over Gregory and company. I assume he had a good agent at the time.