The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Director: Henry Hathaway
Writer: William H. Wright, Allan Weiss, and Harry Essex; based ona story by Talbot Jennings
Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard
Producer: Paul Nathan & Hal B. Wallis
by Jon Cvack
Similar to El Dorado and ever so close to matching its flawless beauty, The Sons of Katie Elder is yet another gorgeous western up on Netflix streaming currently (writing this in January 2017). Directed by Henry Hathaway who started his tenure as a director of film noir (I’ve only seen Call Northside 777, which was awesome), he eventually would head over to the western, utilizing panavision as well as Leone or Hawks did with their respective wide screens. And like those masters, each shot extends beyond its subject, using both characters and the environment to create depth, allowing our eyes to drift beyond the subject that brought us there to begin with. Watching this, I became aware of how much my eye wanted to explore, disappointed that I was watching it on a such a small screen compared to how it was meant to be seen.
The movie involves the four everly brothers: the oldest brother John (John Wayne); the black sheep Tom (Dean Martin); the youngest, college destined Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.); and an unsuccessful businessman middle brother Matt (Earl Holliman) - who return home after their kind and generous mother Katie passes away, all unwelcomed by the town for their checkered past. Katie was beloved by the townspeople, helping all those in need, hoping for nothing but the best from her four sons. Unfortunately, Katie’s ranch was sold when their drunk of a father lost it in a poker game, getting killed shortly after. So begins the mystery, as the brothers all work to try and figure out how and why exactly the father was murdered.
Alongside their search, we get to meet Morgan Hasting (James Gregory) - a gunsmith in town who’s constantly testing his new rifles in one of the coolest shops I’ve seen in a western town. I’m not sure what it is, but ever since I was a kid, seeing collections of guns in movies like Terminator 2 or Tremors, my brain always lights up. We see Morgan testing a sniper rifle, never calling attention to the device, though later using it during the film’s climactic shoot out. His son, Dave Hasting, played by Dennis Hopper as an anxious and morally confused young man, is one of the movie’s most fascinating characters, struggling to stand up to his father, who now owns Katie’s ranch, not wanting to be implicated in the Elder father’s murder. Morgan and his band of gunslingers eventually kill the sheriff, placing the blame on the Elder brothers, and thus begins a series of battles that extend throughout the film.
Yet similar to El Dorado, it’s between the action scenes that makes the movie transcend its peers, as we get to learn more about these characters. Hathaway captures a true sense of blood between the men, as the four bicker, fight, and laugh. Their dynamic was such a thrill to watch, especially with John Wayne who I’ve rarely seen have show such a comical side. Typically he’s the lone individual, keeping a safe distance. In Katie Elder we get a deep sense of warmth and affection toward the his brothers. I was going to make a joke about how Wayne looks like he’s forty years old, but turns out he was actually closer to 60, meaning there was a forty year difference between him and his brother Bud. While I’m trying to think of a solid excuse, I just can’t really believe that Katie Elder had Bud when she was about 60 years old (if she had John at 18 + 40 = ~60, which is John Wayne’s actual’ age). The more logical conclusion is that John was meant to look forty, which he did, and it becomes all the more impressive in that Wayne could play that role so convincingly.
Also similar to El Dorado is its inclusion of an absolutely incredible bar scene, even better than El Dorado in this case and just as great as most Tarantino movies, involving Dean Martin’s Tom as he fights to get a drink with no money and offering one of the greatest ideas I’ve never thought of. Feigning a glass eye, he asks his fellow drinkers if any of them wish to purchase the thing. A drunk declares that, considering he’s never owned a glass eye, it’s well worth at least two bits, setting the opening price, which sparks a bidding war. The drunk ends up winning, leaving Tom with ten dollars to buy whiskey, though not before has asks to buy the eye back to continue his scam, with the drunk feeling bad and then handing it over for free, and hardly anyone is mad about it. I was expecting some brawl to break out, and giving us a cheap action sequence, but again there was a humanity to it all, with the men simply finding it funny.
It’s between this and El Dorado that has really sparked an interest in revisiting many of the western’s that I wasn’t really all that excited about the first time - the classics, either from top 10 lists, or AFI’s Top 100. I appreciated them, but I think that until now, with such great HD transfers, we’re finally able to see them the way they’re meant to be seen. The classic westerns from the 60s and 70s have a unique power to transport you to another time, the way any great movie could. They were told with a deliberate and steady camera, not hand held and moving every which way. That classical style is renewing my interest. I’m in the middle of Nevada Smith (also by Hathaway and also on Netflix), but unfortunately it’s a poor transfer, serving as a great example of how failing to capture the intended look can make the story feel old and boring. But that’s another review that will be coming up in a few after this one.
BELOW: How to get a free drink with a glass eye
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