Sons of Katie Elder, The (1965): Hathaway’s Western, Starring John Wayne and Dean Martin

In Henry Hathaway commercially popular western, The Sons of Katie Elder, John Wayne, in his first role after a serious bout with cancer (“I Licked the Big C”) plays John Elder, the eldest and toughest of four brothers. 

Elder’s siblings are Tom (Dean Martin), a cardsharp and conman, Matt (Earl Holliman), a quiet one (Earl Holliman), and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest and the hope of the family. 

 
The quartet gets together at the funeral of their mother, a noble and brave woman, who had died in poverty, whereupon they set out to investigate their father’s death, which occurred on the night he supposedly gambled away his ranch to the town’s boss. 
 
Sheriff Billy Wilson (Paul Fix) and his young, inexperienced deputy, Ben Latta (Jeremy Slate), warn the brothers to stay out of trouble, which, of course, does not help. 
 
Problem is, there are only two witnesses, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory) and his son, Dave (Dennis Hopper). To protect themselves and their illegal acquisition, and to cover the murder of the Elders’ father, the Hastings try to incriminate the brothers for the sheriff’s murder. Blamed for the vicious killing, the brothers have no choice but to give themselves up and to be taken to Loredo with a posse.
 
Mary Gordon (Martha Hyer), Ben Latta’s love interest, visits the brothers, bringing them food, while criticizing them for neglecting and deserting their mother.
Inner-Directed Hero
 
In an ambush, Matt Elder is killed and Bud is wounded, which makes John Elder becomes all the more committed to avenge the multiple deaths in his family. As he tells the deputy sheriff in a characteristic manner: “This is something I have to do for ”myself.”  After killing the boss and clearing the family’s name, Elder fulfills another promise, sending his younger brother to college.
Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

The four adult sons of Katie Elder – John (Wayne), who is a famous (or infamous) professional gunman; Tom (Martin), a professional gambler; Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.), the youngest brother, in his first year at mining college; and Matt (Earl Holliman), an unsuccessful hardware dealer – reunite in their hometown of Clearwater, Texas, (107 miles east of Dallas in northeast Texas), in 1898 for their mother’s funeral, sharing regret that none of them have lived up to her high expectations of them.

The townspeople and new deputy sheriff are unfriendly, to John and Tom in particular. Katie Elder, however, was loved by everyone in the community, who were all aware of her honesty, her poverty, her generosity and her undying love for the sons who neglected her. The brothers want to do something for Katie’s sake, and after an argument about marble monuments ends in a brawl, they decide to send Bud back to college. However, Bud wants to emulate his eldest brother.

Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), a gunsmith and rising entrepreneur, claims ownership of the Elders’ rich ranch and access to water, for his Hastings Gun Manufactory, saying he won it from their father in a game of cards. Bass Elder was shot in the back that same night; the killer is still unknown. The Elders suspect foul play, and anticipating trouble, Hastings has brought in a hired gun, Curley (George Kennedy). However, at first Hastings hides his hostile attitude towards the brothers, claiming that he offered to compensate their mother for the loss, but she refused.

The rancher Striker agrees to let the brothers drive a herd of horses from his ranch in Pecos to sell to the miners in Colorado, on credit, a deal he started with their mother. When the wise, much-loved sheriff, Billy Wilson (Paul Fix), asks Hastings some pointed questions, Hastings shoots him, framing the Elders. A posse intercepts them on their way back from Pecos with the herd. Billy dies before he can name his assassin, and a mob assembles to lynch the Elders. The judge insists that the Elders be driven to Laredo for safety.

During the transport, Hastings arranges an ambush using the deputized townsmen in the escort, except for Deputy Sheriff Ben Latta (Jeremy Slate), who despite his hostility towards the Elders remains dedicated to his duty. Curley plants dynamite under the bridge, and in the explosion, Matt is fatally impaled by a splinter; John kills Curley, Bud is seriously injured, and Hastings kills Ben when he tries to aid the Elders. John and Tom succeed in beating back the surviving ambushers; they return to town to get medical help for Bud and barricade themselves in the smithy. John tells the judge, now acting sheriff, that they can prove they were miles away when Billy was killed. The judge allows the doctor to tend to Bud and sends to Laredo for a marshal.

Tom sneaks out to kidnap Hasting’s weak-willed son Dave (Dennis Hopper), but Hastings wounds Tom in the back. Hastings then shoots his own boy in order to prevent him from telling John the truth. In John and the judge’s presence, Dave confesses his father’s crimes before he dies.

Now vindicated, John takes up arms in righteous fury and pursues Hastings to his gunsmith shop. After a gun battle, John shoots a cask of gunpowder inside the shop, blowing up the building with Hastings inside.

Cast
John Wayne as John Elder
Dean Martin as Tom Elder
Martha Hyer as Mary Gordon
Michael Anderson Jr. as Bud Elder
Earl Holliman as Matt Elder
Jeremy Slate as Deputy Sheriff Ben Latta
James Gregory as Morgan Hastings
Paul Fix as Sheriff Billy Wilson
George Kennedy as hired gunfighter Curley
Dennis Hopper as Dave Hastings
Sheldon Allman as Harry Evers
John Litel as the Minister
John Doucette as Hyselman
James Westerfield as horse trader Mr. Vennar
Rhys Williams as Charlie Striker
John Qualen as Charlie Biller
Rodolfo Acosta as Bondie Adams
Strother Martin as Jeb Ross
Percy Helton as Mr. Peevey
Karl Swenson as Doc Isdell