Four Brothers and a Funeral
Often cited as the inspiration for John Singleton's "Four Brothers", "The Sons of Katie Elder" is not by any means one of the world's greatest westerns. But it is entertaining and all the issues become inconsequential as you watch a good old fashion movie. And that comes from a good cast delivering good performances in stereotypical but enjoyable roles, some decent action and a catchy musical score all of which combines to make "The Sons of Katie Elder" tick over nicely and bringing a smile to the faces of those who enjoyed the westerns of John Wayne, Dean Martin and director Henry Hathaway.
As the eldest son of Katie Elder, John (John Wayne - The Magnificent Showman) returns home to Clearwater following her death and is reunited with his three brothers. After burying their mother they are surprised to learn that she died with nothing to leave thanks to their dad having lost everything whilst gambling to Morgan Hastings (James Gregory - A Distant Trumpet). Believing that their dad had been swindled the four brothers set about getting justice.
At its heart "The Sons of Katie Elder" is nothing more than the reworking of the traditional justice/revenge theme and all the reasonably clever build up, the back story over the son's parents adds just as an intro to what for many would consider just another rehash of an old favourite. Think "The Man from Laramie" and you get an idea of what to expect except with this time four brothers seeking justice. That's not a criticism of it, because it's a good storyline especially when worked by a director who knows what he wants to achieve and Henry Hathaway certainly gets more out of the story and actors than many others would have.
Part of the charm of "The Sons of Katie Elder" is that it has a grip on the story telling which draws you into the characters making you warm to them. In those early scenes where the four brothers head off too settle their mother's debts the way everyone enthuses about what a wonderful woman their mother Katie Elder was really draws you in to the story making the characters feel real. But it's also the demonstration of old fashioned respect which is on show, with the likes of the owner of the funeral service saying it would be an honour to tend her grave and regaling John Elder with tales of his parents. In many ways it is old fashioned sentimentality but it delivers all the charm you could ever want, it really is very masterfully done.
But of course it is a western and as such it has plenty of action interspersed building up to the action ending. It's all very well choreographed delivering the excitement of a western shoot out which you expect from this sort of movie. What is more significant is that just four months before shooting "The Sons of Katie Elder" John Wayne had a cancerous lung removed yet he still did all his own stunts and more importantly looked just as impressive as ever as a gunslinger.
It's as much to do with the casting of John Wayne as it has to do with the casting of all the characters which helps to make "The Sons of Katie Elder" such a good movie. Pairing up with John Wayne again is Dean Martin who brings his smooth talking charisma to the character of Tom Elder the gambling brother out of the four brothers and gives the movie the often needed lighter moments such as the bar room eye auction scene. Then there is Earl Holliman who plays the sensible Matt Elder and Michael Anderson Jr. who fills the screen up with youthful enthusiasm as Bud the youngest of the Elder brothers. They may not look like brother's but all four work well together, not one of them hogs the limelight, although that seems to naturally fall to the partnership of John Wayne and Dean Martin.
But it's also the other characters which makes it a much rounder movie especially George Kennedy as Curley the hired gunslinger who works for the Hastings. Kennedy is not the most obvious choice when it comes to playing a bad guy but he is surprisingly convincing even if not overly menacing. Plus there is Martha Hyer who adds a bit of beauty as a neighbour and there's also a youngish Dennis Hopper who crops up as Morgan Hastings son Dave.
What this all boils down to is that whilst there are greater westerns "The Sons of Katie Elder" is still a very good movie which will keep you entertained from beginning to end. It has a great grip on a storyline which charms you with old style respect whilst delivering those action moments you expect from a western. Plus of course with the pairing of John Wayne and Dean Martin it has two great actors full of charisma to lead the movie.