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The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)


Ah, the joys of a manly-man film on Father’s Day, actually about a mother and a dead deadbeat Dad, and the guilt that runs through their sons. Not a daughter in sight, this film is about the sons who abandoned their mother, returning a few days after her death, to discover how she, their Pa and their good name were taken advantage of by an ice-hearted bastard. Of course, said bastard hasn’t reckoned on the Duke, a few real days past having a lung removed, and riven with the angry guilt of the oldest of The Sons of Katie Elder.

The Duke was getting heavy, but still the star he’d been for decades. He was in his late fifties, so the early scenes are especially telling. The line between real life and film personality is difficult to read: he’s not enjoying middle-age, is physically clunky (or, to quote, Lechy Linda, that ass looks like a sack of cats after the drowning) and has that sadness that hits us all when surrounded by the funerals of our parents, their brothers and sisters.

John Elder’s brothers wait for him on a far west railway platform. It’s the desolate west: all post pioneers, thin law and nascent order. And there’s no John. But George Kennedy gets off, dressed in black hat, jacket, waistcoat, trews, boots and personality. There’s a shoot-out a-comin’, y’ can tell.

And so to Katie Elder’s funeral. Old Jack here saw this back in the day, in a fleapit with a widescreen and the smell of despair. It was perfect for the funeral in exactly the same way a cramped TV room watching Apple’s nasty pan and scan 4:3 boxed copy isn’t. Elmer Bernstein‘s music makes the moment, twinned gorgeously with the red rock and dust of the location and Henry Hathaway‘s direction. But some majesty is lost from streaming services not respecting his intent.

Up amongst the rocks, as the service goes on and good guys bow heads, the camera picks out the Duke. He’s come after all, but knows to stay distant. It’s a beautiful moment for the character and Wayne: all movie poster, frontier experience and the American terseness it birthed. Yeah – it’s majesty I wanted: Wayne is the beautiful king of this wild frontier.

And then on with the funereal magic: the Duke has a moment with Paul Fix‘s instantly personable Billy the Sheriff by the graveside once the others have gone. Exposition comes at a rate of knots: Dad died, shot in the back, probably a post-gambling moment of drunkeness; Katie was noble, kind, and cheated out of the family homestead somehow; the boys are back in town. So off goes Duke to see his family in the box house his Ma had been gifted by the town grandees out of pity. One blue dress and one grey dress and an emblematic rocking chair were all she had – save stories of her wonderful sons…

It really layers on the sonorous guilt, but the film is so darned pretty, the music gorgeous and the Duke a solid heart you want to see put things right. The mood lightens when John faces his brothers: Dean Martin as Dean Martin the Caricature as Tom Elder, loose of character and characterisation; Earl Holliman as the personality-free but instantly-likeable-because-of-the-actor Matt; and Michael Anderson Jr as Bud. Bud is nearly 18 and fucking annoying. You’ll spend entire scenes waiting for Martin or the Duke to punch him in the face. Instead, he does it to Kennedy, with a stick.

Martha Hyer pops by as Katie’s drop-dead piety-in-platinum-and-’50s-bouff friend Mary to tell all the boys they were shits for never visiting their Ma. To their credit, the Sons don’t come on to her, but take the verbal beatings they deserve…and give her Katie’s chair and Bible as atonement. Which, once done, changes the tone of the movie…

If the first half is a lovely study of that slog from death to funeral to guilty discoveries, the second is revenge and its cost. Old Jack here loved both halves, but it has to be said the treatise on middle-age and its brutal treacle nosedives into standard Western stuff as the Sons probe the new owner of the family ranch for the truth. Terrifically, Dennis Hopper twitches and jitters his way through some prosaic scenes as the son of James Gregory‘s bad guy, Morgan Hastings. Boo. Hiss. And, what a twat. He is all wrinkles and secretive shootings…

Seen through pretty instantly, Hastings murders Billy, frames the Sons, nearly gets them lynched by the thick-as-shit ancestors of Trump’s base, and sets up a couple of lovely set-pieces. A shoot-out on a bridge is one that stayed with old Jack since the 1960s. Don’t know why, it’s just effective and scary in a way that undercuts the gloss of the film. The boys are shackled to each other, under fire from George Kennedy and a bunch of bastards. The shooting is generally horrific, but not all the brothers survive…

Yup – all this goodness pays a price for fighting evil. Redemption is a bitch.

This is a terrific movie. Many of the emotions are off-kilter and closer to the adventure genre – no hanging about to grieve for anyone save Katie Elder – but the weight of the first half needs the sunlight and adventure of the second. And it works. Professionally and deftly done.

That the Duke was post-op, doing his own stunts, and not punching anyone remotely annoying (Dean Martin’s schtick with slurred vowels and an eyeball are a formula allowance the film could have done without, and, dear God, that boy…) is testimony to his professionalism, cinematic power, and tolerance of middle-age and its cruelties.

The music is glorious.

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