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The Sons of Katie Elder

Henry Hathaway's The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) is an insignificant cinematic experience, but it does bear some slight historical interest. To begin with, there is a famous story about an earlier Hathaway movie from 1958 called From Hell to Texas. Dennis Hopper had a bit part in it, and though the story is different with different sources, essentially Hopper did something like 83 takes of a scene, either because he was being a Method actor or because Hathaway was trying to break him. Hathaway later said that Hopper — who made radical statements about the movie business in private conversation — would never work in Hollywood again, and in fact Hopper had professional trouble for about a decade after. But here in The Sons of Katie Elder is Dennis Hopper, yet again in a Hathaway movie. Furthermore, by all accounts Hathaway wasn't much of a nice guy to begin with. On the set of Sons he was cruel to star John Wayne, who had just come off of cancer surgery in which he lost part of his left lung and a rib. Hathaway made the obviously short-winded star do his own stunts — on the premise that the director himself had just survived colon cancer surgery (so if he could do it, so could Wayne). Nor was Hathaway much of a fan of co-star Dean Martin, who had a tendency to lure his fellow actors out for drinking binges on school nights. But in the end, it's too bad all this psychic energy was wasted on such a pedestrian movie. The Sons of Katie Elder concerns four brothers: Wayne, as a professional gunslinger, Martin, as a gambler wanted for murder, Earl Holliman as a failed businessman, and Michael Anderson, Jr. as a college-going twerp. The foursome reunite in the town of Clearwater, Texas, for their mother's funeral and stay on to solve the mystery surrounding her death and their father's murder. The perpetrator turns out to be James Gregory and his band of thugs, including George Kennedy (Hopper plays Gregory's neurotic son). Hathaway's film is undistinguished, slow and tedious, lacking in action, and clumsily and boringly staged. It's derived from a tedious screenplay credited to William H. Wright, Allan Weiss, and Harry Essex (the fabled Wise Hack of Gore Vidal's Hollywood essays), from a story by Talbot Jennings, and it also features derivative music from Elmer Bernstein. Paramount's DVD edition of The Sons of Katie Elder offers fairly good looking anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of Lucien Ballard's typically bold western photography, while the audio is an adequate Dolby 2.0 mono. The only extra is the film's trailer, the transfer derived from a scratchy source print. But the trailer almost makes the film look interesting — partially because it isolates all Wayne's funny ass-kicking moments. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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