“Duke is the best actor in Hollywood.” ~ John Ford
There are better John Wayne movies, but none that I like better or have seen as often as The Sons of Katie Elder. It is the definitive John Wayne movie… and hence the definitive western. It is everything a western… especially a John Wayne western… should be: iconic.
Based very loosely on a William H. Wright book called Life of the Marlows, The Sons of Katie Elder is the story of four brothers who return to their Texas hometown for their mother’s funeral. After her funeral, they discover that their father had been murdered sometime before on the very night that he had supposedly lost the family ranch playing cards to a big businessman named Hastings. Since losing the ranch and her husband, their mother, Katie Elder, had been living penniless. John Elder (Wayne) who is a famous gunfighter, and his three brothers, set about to setting things right and to make sure that the youngest brother amounts to something.
Filmed in 1965, and co-starring among others Dean Martin and a very young Dennis Hopper, The Sons of Katie Elder was the first movie that the Duke made after having cancer surgery to remove one lung and two ribs. Cancer delayed the filming, but once filming began, he insisted on doing his own stunts to prove that he had indeed, “licked the Big C.”
The Sons of Katie Elder is John Wayne at his iconic best. From the very first glimpse we get of him on top of a rocky hill looking down on his mother’s funeral from afar to avoid causing trouble, to the final scene of Duke walking through a small parlor and past his mother’s rocking chair, we are reminded of how truly “big” Wayne was… and how small all actors and landscapes seem when he is on the screen.
Wayne inhabits each scene – inhabits every movie he is in – like a force of nature. Only Eastwood comes close to that kind of screen presence. But even he would have been dwarfed by the presence of Wayne.
This iconic-presence is on full display in The Sons of Katie Elder. I suspect that that is one of the main reasons that it has become my favorite of all his films. It is not in any sense of the word a great film… but it is a great western. It is exactly what a western should be. At its core, it is a celebration of the Duke and the western… for they are synonymous. It is this celebration that allows us ignore all the many imperfections of the story and the movie. For in the end, all that matters is that John Wayne is on the screen… bigger than life.
A Few Memorable Quotes
Bud Elder (Michael Anderson, Jr.): I’m going with you. I can draw pretty fast. We can be famous — like the Dalton Brothers!
John Elder (John Wayne): They’re famous — but they’re just a little bit dead. They were hung!
John Elder (John Wayne): All we want to do is make you end up rich and respectable. You fight us every step of the way.
Bud Elder (Michael Anderson, Jr.): I don’t want to be rich and respectable. I want to be just like the rest of you.