“The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965)
If the challenge for any film is for that movie to deliver an original and memorable experience, then that challenge may become doubly daunting in the case of genre pictures; the available crutch of formula genre tropes, whether conscious or mentally assembled through an almost unavoidable mental osmosis of influences past. It is especially dispiriting when a film unreels revealing little to no reason for the film to exist, despite the participation of many whose earlier work indicates an ability to produce far more interesting work, leading to the unsatisfying conclusion that the participants are displaying a far too callous willingness to coast their way through insubstantial material which doesn’t even make a minimally reasonable effort to justify its own production. (There are, of course, more undeniably celluloid wasteful vehicles to consider in such a discussion, but the sheer scope and creative resource squandered in such a major production should- in all critical fairness -elevate such a vacuous expenditure of said resources to the top of the pyramid of ignominy.) Henry Hathaway’s “The Sons of Katie Elder” takes the aimlessness breezily exalted in Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” to a level of narrative torpor that begs for immediate resuscitation by objective critical defibrillator paddles.
The funeral of Katie Elder creates an occasion for a reunion of her four sons, each seeming to possess a certain level of disreputability if one is to believe the generally negative reaction to their reemergence by the local townspeople who simultaneously, and without exception, hold the memory of the expired Elder in an almost ridiculous elevation of rapturous reverence, regarding her as a veritable melding of Mother Teresa and Mother Courage. The filmmaker’s most canny instinct is to deny the audience any direct physical manifestation of Katie, transforming her into a purely mythic personality rather than risking subverting her image through a more direct representation which could- with injudicious casting -have resulted in a dangerous overdose of treacle (imagine Helen Hayes in the role) which could have easily transformed the texture of the film from sagebrush to syrup. However, such a distancing device- necessitating a constant flow of testimonials concerning Kate’s selflessness -results in the unforeseen consequence of making the adoring community appear more selfishly one-sided on the Good Samaritan scale (how else to explain the saintly woman’s fall into squalor while more prosperous citizens continue taking advantage of her blind altruism?) with the subsequent result of increasing a general sense of public hysteria toward the four Elder “boys” that seems entirely out of synch with the events of the film; a burden which seems more advanced by the need of the screenwriter to create a needlessly convoluted conflict, rather than addressing any organic issues. This central conflict appears to be the legacy of the Elder Ranch, though even a most rudimentary consideration of that riddle could be solved simply by noting just who is living at the ranch, not to mention the lugubrious performance of James Gregory as the same Elder ranch resident Morgan Hastings, the most patently obvious figure of wrongdoing since the lugubrious performance of James Gregory as Sen. Johnny Eislin in “The Manchurian Candidate”.
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