Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of making my own 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Thirty Six: The Sons of Katie Elder
This film eventually surprised me but the whole first hour felt like a routine Wayne western. Not that one of those is a bad thing, they’re sturdy but never astounding, missing the brilliance of his collaborations with Ford, Hawks, and a few other gems. It even occurred to me that Wayne’s by-the-numbers Westerns were almost like a James Bond series: he wears the same outfit, goes through many of the same actions/story beats, and even says similar dialog. But back to The Sons of Katie Elder, this film is fascinating because it’s split between those two worlds.
Like I said, the first half is pretty ho-hum as Wayne leads his brothers in a lazy investigation into his parents’ death. And then the whole tone changes in one scene. It’s the Dean Martin eye gag moment and something enters the narrative that hasn’t till this point: some mischievous fun and some true danger. Martin proves that he wasn’t a one-trick-pony with his work in Rio Bravo years before; he’s the most unpredictable part of this picture and the screen is energized when he takes center stage. It’s interesting to think what the movie would have been like with Martin in Wayne’s role (something that was apparently planned at one point after Alan Ladd dropped out). Anyway, in that scene, a new life is injected into the picture.
From then on, beyond the weak moments of comedy, there’s a lot of great things in The Sons of Katie Elder. That comedy is truly the low point of the movie, as Hathaway and his actors try to do with two brotherly fight scenes (one in the house and one in the river) what Ford could capture when two or more men duke it out but end up closer than ever in the end. They come up short, way short. It’s clumsy and distracting. I was playing editor while watching this, cutting out the fat and I think at least thirty minutes could be trimmed, turning this from a two hour movie with some real slack sections to a tight tense masterwork of the genre.
The film is best when it is serious and intense. Take the bridge fight, maybe one of the best shootouts in a Western. I loved the staging of this and little things: Wayne’s reckless shooting after the loss of one of his brothers, the way men leap into the air and get shot mid-air, the surprising and casual death of one heavy. Thankfully, the film holds onto this energy as it nears the end, climaxing with a dark vision of final justice. I’m also grateful that Hathaway doesn’t overstay his welcome after this last battle, giving us a short but touching conclusion. The last shot is really one of the most subtle and best endings in the genre.
Seen on Amazon Prime.