The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Director: Henry Hathaway
From childhood on up this, along with Rio Bravo has been one of my favorite Duke westerns. The story could not get much simpler. John Wayne’s father, and then a few brothers are shot by a greedy crooked land baron, who also took his mother’s ranch and robbed him of his family’s inheritance. So, being the rational forward thinking progressive that Mr. Marion Michael Morrison ( JW’s real name) was, he decides to shoot the damned sonuvabitch. Add in some thumping western music and some classic character actors, and there’s your movie, in a nutshell. As soon as you see that wide vista and hear Elmer Bernstein’s score blaring you forget all about how ridiculous it is for Wayne and Dean Martin to be cast as brothers, or the various other absurdities that you have to be able to swallow to enjoy a John Wayne western. You just sit back and enjoy. . I was fascinated to learn that the story of the Elder brothers and their quest for revenge, up to and including the famous gun battle where they escape from the Law, steal some rifles, and fight off a set up ambush under a bridge is actually completely true. Not that this is a historically minded movie that is, but that is a little nugget for those so inclined.
John Ford and Howard Hawks are generally considered to have been the “Masters of Wayne”. Those two directors were men that the Duke looked up to and respected and they were able to get performances out of him, such as the ones he gave in Ford’s mesmerizing epic ‘The Searchers’ and Hawk’s nearly as good epic ‘Red River’ that went beyond the normal routine and persona he was known for. In those two movies you see a John Wayne that’s earning his money on screen. He’s not just “being John Wayne” but is pushed to the furthest reaches of rage, obsession, and other real human emotions. There is another director that often gets overlooked in the discussion though; Henry Hathaway. That in itself is a little surprising seeing that Wayne’s only Oscar came from a performance he gave in a Henry Hathaway movie called ‘True Grit’. To be fair the Oscar nod in ‘True Grit’ was more of a token gesture at that point. His acting was fine in that movie, but it nowhere reached the levels of desperation and real honest emotion that he gave in the aforementioned Ford and Hawks movies. Hathaway was really good at taking your average John Wayne movie and turning it into something better than it should have been. Story wise, ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’ is not much different than some of the forgettable 1970s efforts Wayne made such as “Cahill U.S Marshall” or “Big Jake”. When you compare it to those weaker efforts though you see what a skilled hand Hathaway was at making the kind of fun and epic westerns that sadly, just don’t get made anymore.