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.
Katie Elder has died and three of her four sons have returned to Clearwater, Texas, for the funeral. The Elder boys, Matt (Earl Holliman), Ted (Dean Martin), and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) wait at the train station for their older brother, John (John Wayne), but he’s not on the train. That suits the town just fine, because John is a professional gunfighter and there’s good reason to expect trouble. Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), the local gunsmith, certainly does. He now owns what used to be the Elder family’s ranch, after Bass Elder, the father, supposedly got drunk and lost the land in a card game. That was the same night the elder Elder got shot in the back, and Hastings is worried enough about John Elder coming home to hire his own gunman (George Kennedy).
The film takes a while to get moving because it spends a great deal going over the same ground over and over. Katie was a saint who never let on that her sons disappointed her and neglected her after their father died. She wanted the youngest, Bud, to go to college but he hero-worships John, the supposedly legendary gunslinger. Ted is a chip off the old Elder block, at least in the gambling department. We, the audience, have gotten these points about twenty minutes before the movie is finished reminding us of them.
I don't want to be rich and respectable. I want to be just like the rest of you.
Supposedly, the film is about the four brothers trying to atone for abandoning their saintly mother by avenging the murder of their no-good drunk of a father. The film I saw was about the three older brothers trying to make sure the youngest one goes to college, like their mother wanted. The town gets tired of waiting for them to cause trouble and gangs up on them anyway. Whatever the actual story, The Sons of Katie Elder never seems to overcome its own inertia. Some tighter editing, especially in its first hour, certainly couldn’t have hurt this movie, but I don’t if it could have made it more than just an average western.
The cast is full of people who would all do better work in other films, but George Kennedy really stands out for being lost without much of a character. For his whole time on screen, Kennedy just seems to be doing a poor imitation of Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance. He growls, he snarls, he sneers, but he never seems like a viable threat to John Wayne.
For Wayne himself, The Sons of Katie Elder is just an average, unremarkable performance by his standards, nothing near the work he’d do for director Henry Hathaway in True Grit. He does deserve credit for going back to work right after losing a lung to cancer. He insisted on doing his own stunts, just to prove he was still John Goddamn Wayne, you pussies.
His character raises a question in my mind, however. John Elder is supposed to be a “professional gunfighter.” How exactly does that job pay the bills? I can’t imagine the work is very steady. I have a feeling that this particular “profession” is the creation of the dime novel and the Hollywood western. The Sons of Katie Elder is a completely traditional, mildly entertaining but not particularly remarkable example of just that genre.