A lot of fun
In 1965 John Wayne was recovering from quite a drastic cancer operation. Surgeons removed a lung and two ribs. The Western-loving public worried. Would he be back in the saddle? Of course he would! With the strength and guts and work ethic he had, he’d be back in the saddle alright. Dean Martin said, “Someone else would have lain around, feeling sorry for himself, for a year. But Duke, he just doesn’t know how to be sick. He’s recuperating the hard way. He’s two loud speaking guys in one. Me, when people see me, they sometimes say, ‘Oh, there goes Perry Como.’ But there’s only one John Wayne, and nobody makes any mistakes about that”.
It was worth coming back for. Duke’s paycheck was six hundred thousand dollars, plus one third of the profits and another third of the negative. Nice.
The Sons of Katie Elder was the first in a whole series of big, commercial, well-made movies that he made down in his beloved Durango, Mexico, 1965 – 73. The others were The War Wagon, The Undefeated, Chisum, Big Jake, The Train Robbers and Cahill, US Marshal. The pictures were box-office successes and gave Duke weight and dominance. His then wife Pilar was dismissive of them:
Looking back, I can barely tell those Durango films from one another. They had a sameness of story, plot and location which seemed like a disservice to Duke’s fans. Different casts are the only thing which made them stand apart.
But in fact she was wrong. It was the opposite: they had very different stories but similar casts. Wayne gathered his stock company about him and used them in successive movies. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr, Paul Fix, Bruce Cabot – the usual suspects. And he used favorites for the crew too: his son Michael as producer, Carl Anderson as art director, William Clothier and Lucien Ballard as cinematographers, Burt Kennedy or Andrew V McLaglen to direct. And they all did a good job; they were professionals. The films did well in the theaters; people liked them. And they fixed Wayne in the mind as a larger-than-life Western star. Of course, these pictures had nothing of the quality of Red River, Fort Apache or The Searchers, we’re not taking Howard Hawks or John Ford here, but in many ways the commercial 60s and early 70s pictures were golden years of the John Wayne Western.
This one had a big plus, though. Where Burt Kennedy and AV McLaglen were hardly in the top echelon of Western directors, Henry Hathaway helmed Katie Elder. It was the sixth of seven times Hathaway and Duke worked together (two years later they’d do the great True Grit). Westernwise, Hathaway went right back to those Paramount Zane Grey pictures of the early 1930s and was a highly experienced hand in the genre. He’d done high quality oaters of the caliber of Garden of Evil and Rawhide and worked with some of the greatest Western actors – and later he’s use Dean Martin again (though in the uninspiring 5 Card Stud).
Randy Roberts and James S Olson, in their 1997 biography John Wayne: American, say that Wayne survived the rigors of on-location filming in the Mexican location through sheer willpower. “At the high elevation, Duke labored for breath, sucking constantly on an oxygen inhalator. His work was a gritty effort by a weak man.” Chuck Roberson, who stunt-doubled Wayne, has written, “Duke did just about as much as he had ever done, and the only way he let anybody know when he had pushed himself too far was by getting grouchy.”
In his biography of Wayne, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eyman says, “Wayne would call Henry Hathaway ‘the meanest man in the business. He worked me like a goddamn dog. And you know something? It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It meant I got no chance to walk around looking for sympathy.’”
Though Durango, Mexico locations were used, it is Durango, Colorado where the movie opens, as the Durango/Silverton railroad through the gorge is featured. In 1926, as a teenager, Wayne, then Marion Morrison, had acted as a prop boy and extra on a Tom Mix movie filmed there, The Great K & A Train Robbery. He probably had fond memories of the railroad.
Three sons of the late Katie Elder are at the Clearwater, Texas depot awaiting the arrival of the fourth, John. He isn’t on the train, though. It’s George Kennedy who gets off, all in black, a gunslinger if ever there was one, as Sheriff Paul Fix can tell right away.
In fact the delayed entry of Wayne is rather well done: the public also awaits him, with bated breath. How will he appear after his surgery? Well, he appears monumentally when finally he is seen. Shot from below, standing on a crag, like a crag himself.
Lucien Ballard was the cinematographer, one of my all-time favorites. He really was an artist. Later he has some great shots of horses being driven, as there were too in another of these Westerns, The Undefeated (McLaglen/Clothier). There are also some fine landscapes, and the shoot-out among the tree roots is very well done. It’s Technicolor and Panavision; no expense spared.
There is a slight problem with chronology: John (born 1907) is supposed to be the oldest brother of Bud (Michael Anderson Jr, born 1943, replacing the slated Disney star Tommy Kirk – a marijuana party and photos of him in handcuffs did for that casting). We are told their mother married in 1850, and there are 36 years between the brothers. It’s 1893 now… Earl Holliman later said, “When you look at it and think of John Wayne who was 65 or so at the time [actually, Duke was in his late 50s, but he sure looked 65] and Dean Martin and me and Michael Anderson Jr looked about 16 [he was 21], all playing brothers, you said to yourself, ‘What kind of woman was this Katie Elder?’”. Oh well, who’s counting? It isn’t all that convincing but never mind.
And of course Kate Elder was the name usually (and wrongly) given in Westerns to Doc Holliday’s woman, known as Big Nose Kate. If it’s her, the chronology is even more skewed. But, come on, we’re not watching this for verisimilitude, even we were entirely sure what verisimilitude was.
The other brothers are Earl Holliman and Dean Martin, the latter reprising his co-starring role with Duke in Rio Bravo, which we reviewed the other day.
Dino is also not terribly convincing as Wayne’s brother, I fear, but never mind that either. He plays the part as the roguish, ne’er-do-well son, gambler Tom. John’s a gunfighter so he’s a not-often-do-well. Dean Martin was always worth watching in a Western, even when he was pretty well going through the motions. He was like Robert Mitchum in that way.
Earl as Matt Elder is more respectable. I think he said he owned a store. Of course Holliman had parts in Broken Lance and Gunfight at the OK Corral to his credit so was quite well known to Western audiences. The kid brother Bud has been off to college, at his ma’s wish, so they have all been away and have ignored their poor widowed mother.
Yes, widowed: Pa was shot in the back. Now it occurs to the four to wonder who did that. As a bad guy has also taken Ma’s ranch, he’s a likely candidate. The bad guy is Morgan Hastings, who owns half the town and wants all the rest. He is James Gregory, usually a tough cop but equally good as a Western villain. He’d been in oaters since Gun Glory, a Stewart Granger flick, in 1957, and was the Army general in A Distant Trumpet in 1964. He made many appearances in Western TV shows. His son is a scaredy-cat lowlife, Dennis Hopper. Father and son run a firearms business, so are well placed to bushwhack. Rodolfo Acosta is one of Gregory’s henchmen, though sadly has very few lines.
The movie was very loosely based on the 1888 true story of the five Marlow Brothers (George, Boone, Alf, Llewelyn, and Charles) of Marlow, Oklahoma, who were accused of horse stealing and murder but who (this doesn’t happen in Westerns) managed to fight off a lynch mob despite being shackled together, get hold of weapons and find cover. Alf and Llewelyn were killed and George and Charles wounded, but they got away. They later gave themselves up and were acquitted. As for Boone, he was poisoned by arsenic, then his body shot, by men after the reward on him. All this is a bit different from the Wayne movie but so what?
There’s a whole squadron of writers credited, William H Wright, Allan Weiss, Harry Essex and Talbot Jennings. Apparently, Wright picked up a copy of a life of the Marlows by Glenn Shirley back in ’53 and paid the Marlow family a thousand bucks for the rights. John Sturges was to have directed, with Alan Ladd in the lead. But that fizzled. Hal Wallis, who had a deal with Paramount, picked up the film rights and in 1959 it was announced that Dean Martin would star. By the mid-sixties, when Wayne came in, there had been so many changes that the original ‘Marlow’ input was pretty minimal.
Loads of other old-favorite character actors populate the town, which is nice. James Westerfield is the banker, John Doucette is the undertaker, Percy Helton is the storekeeper. Strother Martin has a comic role in the saloon. Fat Rhys Williams turns up in a buggy. John Qualen, an old member of John Ford’s stock company, is a deputy. Familiar faces. Very enjoyable.
I say it is 1893. Duke refers to the Daltons, who died the year before. He says they were “hung” whereas of course they were shot (or in the case of Emmet imprisoned) but who needs accuracy when dealing with the Old West? Wayne wears his usual rig, leather vest over a cavalry shirt, and that old yellow-handled 1873 Colt .44/.40 he always had, whether the story was set in the 1860s or 1900s.
Gunman Kennedy is beating on Doucette when John comes along and whacks the bully in the face with a piece of hickory, like Clint in Pale Rider. That’s telling him. Mind, we see him soon after with no ill effects at all; you’d expect the make-up department to have made his face black & blue. Actually, of course, it was Chuck Roberson who had done the stunt anyway.
Martha Hyer (Rory Calhoun’s amour in Red Sundown and Jock Mahoney’s in Showdown at Abilene) is the love interest, kinda, Mary. She is at first scathing to the brothers who deserted their saintly ma, but comes round to thinking John a good egg when she receives Katie’s rocking chair as a bequest. She’s twenty years younger than John but well, that’s OK.
The music is by Elmer Bernstein and excellent in that Bernsteiny way, stirringly orchestral and catchily whistlable. It gets you urging the good guys on. Johnny Cash put out a song, The Sons of Katie Elder, the same year, co-written by Bernstein, but it didn’t feature in the movie, unfortunately.
There’s a choreographed final shoot-out in a gunpowder store and neat resolution of the crimes, and the baddies get their just desserts. Natch. The final shot is of the rocking chair rocking, suggesting future domesticity for John. Or was it a nod to Old Mose’s chair in The Searchers?
It’s probably too long at just over 2 hours but like Rio Bravo, I don’t mind a Wayne Western long if it’s action-packed and well-paced, and Katie Elder is.
The New York Times’s Howard Thompson liked it a lot, calling it “a good, tough, unpretentious and gory little Western with a professional stamp and a laconic bite” helmed by “an ace director… who knows exactly how to spike menace and mayhem with authentic settings and excellent color.” I reckon that’s about right.
Variety liked it too: “Wayne delivers one of his customary rugged portrayals, a little old, perhaps, to have such a young brother as Anderson but not so old that he lacks the attributes of a gunman. Martin, who plays his part with a little more humor than the others, is equally effective in a hardboiled characterization.”
Even Vogue magazine had its say (and I know how much we all depend on Vogue to get the genuine lowdown on Westerns): “This is an old-fashioned action Western. Very old-fashioned… In fact, I have a good time at movies like Katie Elder. I like the country and I like John Wayne and I like Dean Martin and I like gunfights. If you don’t, don’t bother.”
The picture made $13.3 million on release, ranking No. 15 on the year’s list of top-grossers.
The 2005 film Four Brothers, also Paramount, was kind of a remake, and a Malaysian movie Big B (2007) was an unofficial remake (aka copy) of Four Brothers.
Anyway, The Sons of Katie Elder is all good stuff, if you an undemanding Western-lover, and if you aren’t, why are you reading this blog?