THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER whittled a notch in the log of movie history not owing to greatness or grosses but for the attendant publicity dust its spurs kicked up in 1965, as the first movie made by John Wayne after his lung-removing cancer surgery. The Duke might perish on-screen, suddenly by a snipers bullet (Sands Of Iwo Jima) or bloodily via lance (The Alamo), but this 122-minute yarn let fans know that he might be winded but he was still standing, as granite and eternal as one of the mountains he was framed against. *
Those who never cared for or ‘got’ Wayne, and later generations removed from the sway of his mystique would look at this conventional, unsurprising script and its relaxed, non-flashy direction by Henry Hathaway and shrug. Wayne’s legions of lifelong fans liked this simple, unadorned good guy/bad guy outing precisely for its reassuring saunter and & tried n’true banter. “I want you to leave town” says sheriff Paul Fix, and we smile because we’ve heard that injunction delivered a hundred times by Fix and a territory load of character actors, and we know that before any of Katie’s offspring make tracks from Clearwater at least a few bullies will seek emergency dental care. Fans know part of the formula this time is Duke + George Kennedy’s face= ax handle.
That history’s ‘Big Nose Kate’Elder ** was a somewhat less Ma-like character than the one worshiped by her boys here means fiddlesticks: the four brothers have a murder and swindle to avenge, a frame-up to clear and some thugs to perforate. So, it don’t mean beans that ‘John’ (Wayne), ‘Tom'(Dean Martin), ‘Bud’ (Michael Anderson Jr.) and ‘Matt'(Earl Holliman) look nothing like each other and that there is a gulch-wide age difference of 35 years (let alone sheer tonnage) between Wayne (57) and Anderson (22).
The acting camaraderie and scripted horseplay between the four may stretch credibility but it runs bourbon smooth. Just as he had cinched byplay in Rio Bravo, Martin ups his ante from his Sinatra time-wasters and makes a good foil. Martha Hyer scolds them dutifully. James Gregory is the snarling main baddie (‘Morgan Hastings’ has a sound ring of law-backed corruption to it), with Dennis Hopper getting satisfyingly slapped around as his whiny-weasel son, while Kennedy provides the hulking muscle. The background is liberally peppered with genre favorites. The old-as-hills tinge of the plot becomes incidental (it was based on a factual 1888 incident with five brothers named Marlow).
Durango, Mexico’s striking (and again, instantly recognizable) rocks and valleys made for a difficult shoot for the gasping cancer survivor; at 6200 feet he needed an oxygen tank at hand, but a merciless Hathaway pushed Wayne to a semblance of recovery, one racking cough at a time. A 27-inch scar tearing at him when he moved, and in some takes visibly short of breath, Wayne endured because he felt his high profile stamina would help other cancer sufferers, because he knew the public was behind him (he received 100,000 letters of support and even his foes had to credit his guts) and because he was depressed and worried and needed to pull himself out of it. Get back up on that horse! ***
Produced by Hal Wallis for an efficient $3,190,000, with Lucien Ballard’s camera soaking up the clean-looking scenery. The booming Paramount sound effects and manly posturing were coated with another surging Elmer Bernstein score. It hit a lucky #13 for the year, earning $13,333,000.
With Jeremy Slate, John Litel, John Doucette, James Westerfield, Rhys Williams, John Qualen, Percy Helton, Rodolfo Acosta, Strother Martin, Karl Swenson and Chuck Roberson.
* My Six Degrees From Katie Elder: first saw it in 1968, in a drive-in with The Odd Couple. My folks and their lifelong best friends. A wittle bit to drink (for the grownups–I was 13). Dad and his great pal Johnny (a ringer lookalike for Roy Rogers) had a merry old time in a dryly delivered, Vermouth-fueled running commentary about all the errors and goofs in the movie (not least the bottomless six-shooters). My Mom and her girlfriend Barta were chuckling over “he’s got that darn shirt and vest on again” (Wayne’s signature 60s costume). I was mildly irked (because I was thirteen), but later when I was old enough to appreciate how little I knew, I realized their mockery was affectionate. They were not far removed from a frontier past when they were young, so ranch life and cowboy movies were second nature. And, like me, they’d pretty much grown up with John Wayne—in their case, it was grown up along with. In those dizzying late 60s, when everything established and traditional seemed to be breaking into shards of either anger or psychedelia, The Sons Of Katie Elder was a two-hour reprieve from riots and assassinations, a calm-down dose of what was and what never-was.
** Mary Catherine Haroney was born in Budapest,Hungary in 1850, daughter to an aristocratic physician. Transplanted to the Wild West, ‘Kate Elder” was just one of her many alias nicknames. She was best known as ‘Big Nose Kate’ Fisher, the hard-boozing, nasty-tempered prostitute girlfriend of Doc Holliday: so much for dear old Movie Ma. She lived to be 90; dying, fittingly, where she’d spent a good deal of her rowdy life—in bed. From the frontier femme fatale’s own lips: “Part is funny and part is sad, but such is life any way you take it.” No doubt she’d appreciate the irony of Durango, known for its wide variety of scorpions and as setting for almost 150 features. It has lately become too dangerous to work in or safely visit due to drug gang violence. The New Wild West.
*** Wayne: “I didn’t get famous for doing drawing room comedies.” Addicted, he didn’t stop smoking. A shocked Kennedy, seeing a shirtless, surgery-scarred Wayne pulling on a cigar: “Duke look at yourself. You look like a railroad track from here to Duluth, and you’re smoking?” Wayne answered with a sigh, and a drag: “I can’t stop.” Doing endless cancer-warning chores over his remaining 13 years, he starred in 17 more features (six of them filmed around Durango) before what he called ‘the Red Witch’ finally brought him down in 1978. Mortal, after all, but with those 17, ‘Katie‘ and 119 more he’d starred in since 1930 , he’ll outlive devotees and detractors, ready when needed to swagger in gracefully with a curt “Hey!” and a well-placed ax handle.