For all intents and purposes, Henry Hathaway’s “The Sons of Katie Elder” is the third remake of “Rio Bravo.” Starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, this film shamelessly tries to recapture the magic of their previous collaboration. And while this movie is fun to watch, it comes nowhere near to the joy and brilliance of Hawks’s masterpiece.
The film begins with the four sons of Katie Elder coming back to Clearwater, Texas to bury their mother. There is Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest, Matt (Earl Holliman), an unsuccessful hardware dealer, Tom (Martin), a gambling knave, and finally John (Wayne), the eldest who is a notorious gunfighter. Reunited under the same roof after a decade, the sons set out to settle their family estate. Yet all is not well in Clearwater. The boys discover that their father was murdered, and their family ranch stolen. They set out to unmask the culprits, and soon bullets start flying.
The main issue with “The Sons of Katie Elder” is that it tries to capture lightning in a bottle. It’s obvious from the casting of Wayne and Martin that Hathaway is banking on nostalgia for “Rio Bravo.” Yet while “Rio Bravo” soared this film falls flat. Not much really happens in the picture. “Rio Bravo” wasn’t action packed, but the character interactions were more than enough to keep the audience entertained. Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson were fantastic as the supporting cast to Wayne and Martin. Every scene where the four of them were together was fantastic, especially this scene where they’re singing in the jail. “The Sons of Katie Elder” lacks that esprit de corps. The two younger brothers don’t contribute to the narrative. They merely ride on coattails of Wayne and Martin.
That being said, “The Sons of Katie Elder” is by no means a bad film. Some of the best moments are where we the see the four brothers interact and be a family. There is a wonderful score by Elmer Bernstein, and towards the end there are great action set pieces. Also there are fantastic performances by George Kennedy, Paul Fix, and a young Dennis Hopper.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this movie to “Rio Bravo,” which Quentin Tarantino called the ultimate hangout movie. “Rio Bravo” after all is nearly a perfect Western. “The Sons of Katie Elder” is fine, and I enjoy watching it. Yet as I see Wayne and Martin playing off each other, I keep thinking of Chance and Dude, and the other characters I actually want to hangout with.
For another John Wayne move check out my review of “The Horse Soldiers.”