The Sons of Katie Elder looks epic in the sweeping vistas of its Mexican locations and its large cast of characters, but it doesn’t feel epic in the scope of its story. Its two-hour length is more than enough to contain its narrative, with a solid twenty minutes to spare. It’s not a bad movie so much as a decent one that takes its sweet time getting to the point.
Don’t be deceived by the fact that John Wayne received an Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn. That award was probably more of a lifetime achievement award than recognition for a single performance, much like Paul Newman’s Oscar for The Color of Money. John Wayne had given better performances and made better films. Probably not coincidentally, John Ford was usually involved.
While John Ford would go on to direct several more pictures after this one, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance represents a sort of exclamation point of one of most celebrated directorial careers in American film. His previous high-water mark, The Searchers, was a film torn between the conventions of a previous era and emerging modern sensibilities. Liberty Valance is thoroughly modern by 1962 standards and virtually timeless by any other.
John Ford’s The Searchers is a movie in desperate search for an identity. For every aspect that is excellent, two more make you want to cringe. The film seems to have feet in two eras. Its ambivalent attitude toward the stereotypical treatment of Native Americans seems slightly ahead of its time, although Hollywood would do much better later. Balancing against this are characters and storylines that would have seemed dated when Ford and John Wayne were first working together back in the thirties.
For those of you who are interested, this is the movie that cemented John Wayne’s image as Hollywood’s personification of the All-American war hero (despite his never serving a day in the military). The former Marion Michael Morrison had made a handful of war movies between 1941 and ’45, but it is Sgt. John Stryker that still forms the public’s perception of Wayne’s tough guy persona.
Darryl Zanuck’s multi-national epic occasionally plays like an academic lecture on the events of June 5 and 6, 1944, albeit an interesting lecture with some really cool film. The Longest Day covers the first twenty-four hours of the invasion of France from American, British, French and German perspectives, employing separate directors for each nationality and shooting in the native languages of those involved. This gives the film a level of authenticity that was fairly atypical of war movies of the time.