The sudden death of feisty widow Katie Elder spurs her four sons to head home to Clearwater, Texas. Oldest brother John (John Wayne), a fearsome gunfighter dogged by trouble and the law, leads wisecracking gambler Tom (Dean Martin), nondescript Matt (Earl Holliman) and whiny teenager Bud (Michael Anderson Jr) as they discover their late father was murdered after losing the family ranch in a card game. The man responsible is local gunsmith and wannabe tycoon Morgan Hastings (James Gregory). Together with his own hired gun, Curley (George Kennedy), Morgan sets out to frame the Elder boys before they take him down.
The Sons of Katie Elder was a well-publicized comeback vehicle for John Wayne after winning his first bout with cancer. Or as the Duke himself put it: "licked the Big C" - a turn of phrase that reads dirtier now than it probably did back then. Assembled in nuts and bolts fashion by frequent Wayne collaborator Henry Hathaway the film was embraced warmly by audiences at the time. Yet its high status among fans as the last 'great' John Wayne western, mystifies in light of superior subsequent vehicles like El Dorado (1967), The War Wagon (1967), The Cowboys (1972) and The Shootist (1976). Not to mention the star's Oscar winning turn in True Grit (1969). Perhaps the appeal lies in craftsmanship. Between the warm photography of Lucien Ballard and rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, the film invites viewers to lay back, relax and savour the easygoing interplay between Dino and the Duke as they essentially rehash their relationship in Rio Bravo (1959), minus the alcoholism.
Where the film falters, despite a script rich with evocative dialogue, is its attempt to imbue a slight story with a grandeur and nuance that simply is not there. Screenwriters William H. Wright, Allan Weiss and Harry Essex (later writer-director of schlock non-classic Octaman (1971)!) hitch their thematic wagon to dueling feminine archetypes. Deceased matriarch Katie Elder (whose spirit, in an effective touch, is embodied on screen by an empty rocking chair) embodies good old fashioned family values. Meanwhile the other woman with a crippling psychological hold over the Elder boys is Texas itself, portrayed as a seductress luring young men into ditching responsibility for the sake of adventure. The script settles on a familiar reactionary message, chastening the brothers at every step for neglecting their duty to Ma. Everyone in town, including Martha Hyer, goes out of their way to heap on the guilty. Of course Hyer's underwritten barely a love interest abruptly changes her attitude for no clear reason other than the plot needs her to.
Although Henry Hathaway was a more than capable director with genuine classics under his belt, here his efforts to ape the poetry of John Ford or Howard Hawks fall short. For all its pretensions to grandeur The Sons of Katie Elder is really just a throwback to the old Republic serials with which Wayne began his career. Light on incident let alone substance, the boisterous first half too often devolves into a string of disconnected crowd-pleasing scenes (as when Dean Martin hustles patrons at the local bar) mimicking the semi-improvised structure of Hawks' Rio Bravo. At one point Hathaway has the Elder boys break into a boisterous comic brawl. A pointless scene with no impact on the plot but it worked for Wayne in The Quiet Man (1952), so why not? The second half of the becomes a murder-mystery and grows progressively grimmer, bumping off seemingly major characters in jarringly cavalier fashion. It ends up an amiable mess held together largely by Bernstein's score and Wayne's monolithic presence.