The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) – Motherboys

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For another John Wayne move check out my review of “The Horse Soldiers.”

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The Horse Soldiers (1959) – John Ford’s Descent into Cynicism

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On multiple levels, “The Horse Soldiers” is the halfway point between “The Searchers” and “The Man who shot Liberty Valance.” The eleventh collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne, the film was released in 1959, three years after “The Searchers” and three years before “Liberty Valance.” Yet the “The Horse Soldiers” is not only a bridge between these two films chronologically. The film marks a shift in Ford’s perspective on the West, as he slowly grows disenchanted with its myths.

The film takes place in 1863 during Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) is a tough as nails cavalry commander who is ordered to lead his brigade behind enemy lines and destroy a Confederate rail hub. Cut off from supplies and surrounded by hostile rebels, Marlowe must complete his objective and lead his men safely back to Union lines, or else he’ll spend the rest of the war in Andersonville prison. To make matters worse, Marlow must deal with Major Henry Kendall (William Holden) a military doctor who is just as stubborn as Marlowe. There’s also the issue of Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) a Southern Belle captured by Marlowe who is not too eager to assist the Yankees.

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“The Horse Soldiers” is by no means Ford’s best film. Which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining. John Wayne and William Holden do an admirable job disliking each other on screen. (Holden and Wayne also disliked each other off screen as well, and both vowed never to work together again.) Ford is the master of actions scenes, and there are great shots of the cavalry silhouetted against the horizon. Yet the film lacks the vision present in Ford’s other films. It doesn’t have the grandeur of “The Searchers,” nor the introspection of “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.”

In fact, the film’s greatest fault is that it lacks identity. Hokey scenes of the brave cavalry riding off to fight for the good old US of A are intercut with ghastly moments of brutal warfare. Ford shows us the inside of a war hospital, and we see young boys beg for comfort as they succumb to their wounds. Tonally the film feels stitched together, like a Frankenstein monster of myth and reality.

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A tension pervades the film, and there’s a frenetic energy that makes it uncomfortable to watch. It’s as though Ford is trying to hold onto the last vestiges of the Western myth, but cynicism keeps creeping into his vision. It’s not until “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance,” that the cynicism will blossom, and we’ll see Ford’s final disillusionment with the myth he created.

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