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When Katie Elder died in Clearwater, Texas, her four sons, John (John Wayne), Tom (Dean Martin), Matt (Earl Holliman), and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) came home to pay their respects. They learn that their father was a drunk who gambled away the family ranch on the night he was killed; however, the only witnesses were Morgan Hastings (James Gregory) and his son, Dave (Dennis Hopper). The two decide to cover their tracks by murdering Sheriff Billy Wilson (Paul Fix) and pinning the blame on John Elder and his brothers. Soon they are railroaded by the local townspeople, but John convinces the local judge of the facts and he agrees to bring in a U.S. Marshal. Meanwhile, Tom Elder kidnaps Dave to extract a confession from him; both are mortally wounded by Morgan, but Dave's deathbed confession is overheard by the judge, clearing the brothers.
A scant four months before production for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) began, the 57-year-old Wayne had faced the first round of his battle with cancer. His left lung had been rejected, and against the advice of doctors and family he went ahead with the picture, insisting on doing his own stunts and action segments. The Duke was in excruciating pain through much of the filming, relying on oxygen in the thin air of the Durango, Mexico location, but audiences would have been none the wiser had he not come clean about his operation. Shocked by the lung cancer death of Nat King Cole in early l965, he decided to be completely open about his condition (director Hathaway also confessed to a cancer operation several years before). Rather than ruining his career as some feared, Wayne was applauded for his honesty; cancer victims desperately asked for "John Wayne's operation" after his revelation was made public.
In 1965, things were changing in Hollywood. The studio system had undergone a drastic revamp, and the old guard of directors, producers and stars were aging and being replaced by younger personalities. The Sons of Katie Elder, though, was a traditional Western by sixties standards. Helmed by veteran director Henry Hathaway, it brought together Dean Martin, Paul Fix, Strother Martin, James Gregory and several other stars and character actors who had worked with the Duke several times before. Far from being a simple John Wayne vehicle, the stock company, under the direction of Hathaway, worked together like a well-oiled machine to make a straightforward, unpretentious genre film that delivers the goods. Elmer Bernstein's music score is a wonderful throwback to the glory days of the Hollywood Western and the title song is performed by Johnny Cash.
Producer: Joseph H. Hazen (executive producer), Hal B. Wallis
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Harry Essex, Talbot Jennings (story), Allan Weiss, William H. Wright
Production Design: Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Costume Design: Edith Head
Film Editing: Warren Low
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Principal Cast: John Wayne (John Elder), Dean Martin (Tom Elder), Martha Hyer (Mary Gordon), Michael Anderson Jr. (Bud Elder), Earl Holliman (Matt Elder).
C-122m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
By Jerry Renshaw