The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) Classic Movie Review 167

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

I'm going with you. I can draw pretty fast. We can be famous -- like the Dalton Brothers!




Welcome to today’s show, my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast formally known as iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. So please subscribe when you are finished listening. You can also go to to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts.

Today’s movie is The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). This is pretty standard John Wayne fare where four bad sons come home to find out why their dead mother had lost her farm. This movie has 7.2 rating on[1] and 100 percent rating on the Tomatometer and 81 percent audience approval[2]. I think those ratings are way too generous.

New York Times film critic Howard Thompson said:

“THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER” is a good, tough, unpretentious and gory little Western with a professional stamp and a laconic bite. It has, most unobtrusively, an ace director Henry Hathaway, who knows exactly how to spike menace and mayhem with authentic settings and excellent color.[3]

So, fun to watch, but maybe not the greatest film ever. A lot of good hitting!

This movie was remade as Four Brothers (2005) and although it had Marky Mark and Andre 3000 Benjamin of “OutKast,” and it was terrible.



There are a lot of returning actors beginning with John Wayne as the oldest brother, John Elder. Wayne was first covered way back in Episode 2 – Chisum (1970). Martha Hyer was in the role of Mary Gordon. Hyer was first covered in Episode 22 – First Men in the Moon (1964). Michael Anderson Jr. played the youngest brother Bud Elder. Anderson was first covered in The Glory Guys (1965). Earl Holliman played Matt Elder. Holliman was first covered in Episode 78 – The Big Combo (1955). Jeremy Slate was cast as Ben Latta. Slate was first covered in Episode 72 – The Born Losers  (1967). The great Strother Martin was Jeb Ross. Martin was first covered in Episode 3 – McLintock! (1963). Paul Fix who was in just about every movie played Sheriff Billy Wilson. Fix was first covered in Episode 15 – The Undefeated (1969). George Kennedy plays a large role as hired killer, Curley. Kennedy was covered in Episode 4 – In Harm’s Way (1965). John Doucette as Hyselman was a friend of Katie. Doucette was covered in Episode 106 – Big Jake (1971). John Qualen played Charlie Biller. Qualen was covered in Episode 66 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). James Gregory played bad guy Morgan Hastings. Gregory was first covered in Episode 119 – Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).


Dennis Hopper played Dave Hastings. Hopper was born in Dodge City in 1936. Hopper began working in television in the 1950s. His first film was Johnny Guitar (1950). This was quickly followed by classics Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), both with James Dean, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Shortly, after Dean’s death, Hopper began acting out, and during the filming of From Hell to Texas (1958), Hopper got into a conflict with director Henry Hathaway, forcing 80 takes on one scene until Hopper gave in. The director said Hopper was finished[4], which makes it seem odd that the director worked with him again on this film.

Of course, Hopper wasn’t done. In between drinking and drugs, Hopper continued to appear in films like The Story of Mankind (1957), where he played Napoleon Bonaparte, Hang ‘Em High (1968), with John Wayne in True Grit (1969), and most importantly, Easy Rider (1969) which he helped write and produce. Hopper made films during the 1970s, but the first really good one was when he showed up as a photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979).

By the 1980s, he had curved his bad habits and was ready to make some good films like the street racing film, King of the Mountain (1981), Rumble Fish (1983), The Osterman Weekend (1983), My Science Project (1985), Hoosiers (1986), where he played a drunk, Blue Velvet (1986), where he was totally nude, ahhh, the really powerful True Romance (1993), Speed (1994), and the utterly horrible Waterworld (1995). Hopper continued to make movies until his death in 2010.

Dean Martin played Tom Elder. Martin was born in Ohio in 1917. Speaking only Italian until he was five, the young Martin worked hard jobs such as boxer, steel mill worker, and gas station attendant. Martin was a singer, but he parlayed that talent into an acting career. His funniest movies were the 16 where he paired with funnyman Jerry Lewis. These films include My Friend Irma (1949), At War with the Army (1950), My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), That’s My Boy (1951), The Stooge (1951), Jumping Jacks (1952), Sailor Beware (1952), Scared Stiff (1953), and The Caddy (1953).

Martin proved that he could do dramas, war films, and westerns as well. Notable films include The Young Lions (1958), Some Came Running (1958), Rio Bravo (1959) Ocean’s 11 (1960), Bells Are Ringing (1960), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Martin was on television in “The Dean Martin Show” 1965-1973 which was rebranded “The Dean Martin Comedy Hour” 1974-1984.

Martin was part of the Rat Pack which generally consisted of him, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and others. The group was originally formed and occasionally met at the home of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Martin jumped on the James Bond spy craze with three Matt Helm films, Murderers’ Row (1966), The Silencers (1966), and The Ambushers (1967). He did a great job in Airport (1970) which may be the beginning of the disaster films. He wasn’t above later career comedy with The Cannonball Run (1981) and its poor sequel in 1984.

Martin toured and sang solo or with the remaining Rat Packers until his son died in 1987. Martin died in 1995 on Christmas Day.


A train travels through a mountain valley that doesn’t look anything like Texas. Five men are waiting for the train in Clearwater, Texas. Two of the men are lawmen. The other three men are brothers, Tom Elder (Dean Martin), Matt Elder (Earl Holliman), and Bud Elder (Michael Anderson, Jr.). They are waiting on their older brother, John Elder (John Wayne). The two lawmen, Sheriff Billy Wilson (Paul Fix) and his deputy, Ben Latta (Jeremy Slate), are waiting on John Elder too. The only person that gets off the train is an unknown man named Curley (George Kennedy). The Sheriff says Curley is a bad type. Tom, Matt, and Bud head to the funeral.

Outside of town, there is a farm with a building marked “Hasting Firearms Manufacturing.” Morgan Hastings (James Gregory) is sighting in a rifle. Hastings grown son, Dave (Dennis Hopper) is watching. Curley arrives, and Morgan asks if anyone else got off the train and is told no. Morgan asks Curley if he was afraid of John Elder. Morgan has hired Curley as a gunman to protect him from John Elder. Morgan tells his son that the land they have now own used to belong to the Elders’.

The Sheriff and Latta go back to town. There is a sign by the church that says “Hasting Lumber & Fencing.” The local undertaker, Hyselman (John Doucette) is preparing his coach. Latta wants to wear his gun belt to the funeral because of Curley and John Elder. The funeral is for the mother of the Elder men, Katie Elder. They bury Katie next to her husband, and she has a pretty good turnout. John Elder watches the funeral, unseen, from the top of the ridge. The Parson tells the sons that what he spoke was not good enough for their mother. Many other people there loved her as well.

After the grave is filled, John comes down to look over it. Curley is watching from behind a different rock. Someone comes up behind John, who spins, throws his hat, and draws his gun. Great move. It is the Sheriff. John says that he shouldn’t come up behind a man like that. The Sheriff asks why John came in a back way. John says he does not want trouble. The Sheriff tells John that he should leave soon because this is not his home anymore, there is a hired gun in town, and Deputy Latta is a little gung-ho.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Sheriff tells John that Morgan owns the ranch now and that his mother was living in another place since his father was killed six months before. John asks the Sheriff what he is not trying to tell him and the Sheriff just walks away.

Curley lets Morgan know that John is in town. Dave is panicked about the thought of the Elder’s asking questions about how they came to own the ranch.

John rides to the Lupin place where his three brothers are staying. The brothers are happy to see each other. They talk about Bud being in college. Bud says that the doctor said she died from being worn out. They all get a little upset that none of the others have visited their mother. Bud is obsessed by his oldest brother’s gunfight skills.

A wagon arrives, driven by Mary Gordon (Martha Hyer). She knows all of the brothers and has brought them some food. John remembers Mary from when she was a small girl. She says she is looking in on them only because Katie asked her too. Mary chastises the brothers for not being better towards their mom. Katie had told Mary that sons were always helping her and that she had lost three sons to Texas and was not going to lose Bud. They also talk about Katie’s beloved rocking chair.

Bud said that he was forced to go to college because he was accused of stealing a horse. Bud says Hyselman accused him of stealing a gray horse. Finally, John asked why Katie would sell 1,200 acres of good land. They decide to go to the bank to see how much money is there. John leaves his gun behind at the house.

When the brothers get to town, John sends them on different missions to settle debts. Latta is keeping an eye on them. Bud and Tom go to see Mr. Peevey (Percy Helton) at the general store about Katie’s bill. Mr. Peevey says Katie owes $6.20. They find out that Katie has been making dresses and giving guitar lessons and they are given $4.80.

John goes to see Hyselman about the cost of the funeral. He says that Katie had already paid him for her funeral with a gray horse. John asks if it is the same one Bud stole. Hyselman says he and Katie did that to trick Bud into going to college. Finally, John asks about the burial of his dad. Hyselman tells a funny story about a Roman candle duel. Then John asks again how he died. Hyselman tells John that his dad was killed by being shot in the back.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

Morgan sends Curley to find out what Hyselman told John about his family and farm.

The four brothers go to the bank and meet with Mr. Vennar (James Westerfield). Mr. Vennar talks about how hard Katie worked to support Bud. He tells that she only had a blue dress for winter and a gray dress for summer. He says there was no money in her account and that he let her stay in the Lupin place for free, even though Katie insisted on paying rent. Matt finally asks about the money from the sale of the ranch. Mr. Vennar says a fire destroyed the records and that he can’t remember every transaction. John gives him a hard look and says “every transaction, of just this one?”

Curley arrives at Hyselman’s business. Curley demands to know what he and John talked about. Hyselman refuses to talk. Finally, Curley starts dunking Hyselman’s head in a pan of water. About this time, John comes back in and sees what’s going on. He grabs an ax handle and smacks Curley in the face. Hyselman tells him that Curley is probably working for Morgan.

John tells his brothers that they are going to look at the old ranch. They ride down to the house and knock on the door. Dave answers and he is very nervous. Dave says this is private property. Deputy Latta arrives just as Dave orders them to get off the property. Latta pulls a gun and tries to arrest the brothers. Tom jumps on his horse and takes Latta’s gun. John says he will go in but not as prisoners. Back in town, Charlie Biller (John Qualen) gets a kick out of the brothers riding behind the deputy. The Sheriff tells the Elder’s they can leave. John and Matt go in to talk to the Sheriff.

The Sheriff says that their father lost the ranch to Morgan in a card game while he was drunk. There were six witnesses to the loss, and their father was murdered that night. The Sheriff says stop digging around.

John sees Mary and tells her that he would like her to have Katie’s rocking chair. John and Matt go to the gun shop where Morgan, Curley, and Bondie Adams (Rodolfo Acosta) are hanging out. Morgan shows them the transfer deed for the ranch. John says it is odd that all the witnesses worked for Morgan. Curley’s face is not marked from the wooden handle smack. John asks Morgan what game they were playing, and Morgan says Black-Jack. John says his father though Black-Jack was a woman’s game and he would shot any of his kids for playing it. Matt asks Morgan who he thinks was the “low down dirty stinking rat that shot their pa.”

Outside Matt says that he and his brothers had always played Black-Jack. John says they know that but Morgan doesn’t. Good trick.

Back at the Lupin house, the four brothers go through their mother’s things. They find the family Bible. They argue about whether they should get their mother a grave marker. Finally, John says the best monument to Katie is to have Bud go back to school. Bud says he wants to go with John and they will be famous like the Dalton brothers. John reminds him that they Dalton’s were hung. Actually, two of the Dalton brothers were killed in the 1892 Coffeyville, Kansas raid. Emmett was captured and spent 14 years in prison[5].

John rides into town that night with the rocking chair and the Bible for Mary. Mary is happy to have them, but she feels odd not being family and taking the family Bible. She shows John a pack of letters that he sent to his mother and pointed out how he changed over time. Katie never noticed the changes. Mary asks John if he is going to try and find his father’s killer. He says yes, and she says don’t kill again and surely, don’t kill in front of Bud.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

Tom and Bud go to the bar, but Tom doesn’t want to use his money to pay for drinks. He puts on an eye patch and pretends to remove a glass eye from behind the patch. He says it is worth $22 and he wants to raffle it off. The bartender offers him a free drink, but Tom refuses. Curley is watching from a card table in the back.

Jeb Ross (Strother Martin) joins in on the raffle. Tom puts 19 white and 1 blue poker chip in a hat. The men start drawing chips. Jeb takes his second draw and wins the eye. Tom offers to buy the eye back at a profit. Jeb gives him $4 and a drink. Tom drops the eye in his pocket. They ask him why he didn’t put it back in. Tom takes the patch off and says it would be crowded. They all laugh.

Curley backed up Bondie says Tom is a cheat and a liar like his father. Curley tries to get into a gunfight with Bud. Bondie gives his gun to Bud. John walks in, and everyone goes quiet. John agrees that their father was a drunk and a liar. He forces his younger brothers outside. The Sheriff comes in with a shotgun and orders John out. He makes Curley and Bondie stay in the bar.

The next day, Bud is really upset about the way Curley talked to him. John says Bud would have been killed by Curley. John insists that Bud will go back to school. Bud takes Katie’s old gun out of the drawer and says he is going after Curley. John backhands him and takes the gun away. When Bud tries to punch, John shoves him again. John throws the gun on the table, and all the brothers join in a donnybrook. Finally, John is knocked through the door by Tom and Matt. When he looks up, Mr. Striker (Rhys Williams) is there looking for Katie. Striker says that Katie wanted to buy 100-200 horse on credit. After they were sold, she would repay the money for the horses.

Striker thinks the deal is off. John asks if he can take the deal. The brothers all agree to drive the horses to Colorado and split the profit with Striker. They plan to use the money to pay for Bud’s college.

That night Latta rides in hard and has a short conversation with Morgan. He and Morgan have a wanted poster showing the Tom Elder is wanted for murder. The Sheriff is playing checkers with the judge Harry, and they both think that Tom doesn’t seem to be the murdering type. They say Latta is acting out of hate alone. Latta gets a rifle and ammo.

The Sheriff tells Latta to go reluctantly to pick up Tom. Finally, the Sheriff decides to go by himself. Morgan offers to let Curley come along, and the Sheriff asks what Morgan is trying to keep from the Elder’.

Morgan races ahead of the Sheriff and takes an ambush position above the Lupin Ranch. He shoots the Sheriff in the back. However, he is not dead. Later the Sheriff’s horse comes into town alone. Latta forms a posse, and they ride to the ranch. They find the Sheriff still alive, and two men take him back to the doctor. The posse follows the Elder trail.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Elder’s have the 200 horses and are just beginning the drive north. They spend the first night camped by a river. John compliments Bud on his horse work and asked where he learned. Bud says not in college. Bud asks which one of them is man enough to fill in for their maw and the three brothers throw the youngest in the river. All four end up in the water.

In the morning, Tom sees the posse watching from the ridge. They decide to ride out like they have done nothing wrong because they haven’t. Bondie takes a shot at Bud and hits his horse. Latta yells at Bondie for firing. Latta leads the posse down to where the Elder’s are standing. They take the guns from the Elder’s and tie them up.

The brothers are locked in a cell. Tom explains that a bartender got mad about the fake eye trick. When the bartender started firing, Tom had to fire back in self-defense. A mob forms outside of the jail. Mary brings food to the men. She thinks they are guilty too. The Sheriff is in bad shape. Latta comes in and tells Mary to leave. He also says that the Sheriff is dead and did not clear the Elder’s before he died. Mary demands that Latta call the US Marshal or transfer the brother to Laredo for their safety.

Tom pulls out a knife that he had hidden in his boot and says they are breaking out in the morning. Morgan works the crowd outside. The judge refuses to set a trial date. Charlie chews out Latta for not getting rid of the mob like the Sheriff would have. Latta decides he will move them to Laredo in the morning. John takes the knife away from Tom. John throws the knife out of the window.

Latta, Charlie, and some other deputies take the four men to the blacksmith’s shop. Bud doesn’t want to be shackled to John. Matt and John are connected, and Bud is connected to Tom. The four are loaded into a wagon. Latta deputizes some extra men.

Outside of Clearwater, Morgan, Dave, Curley, and Bondie are waiting in ambush. The three wagon drivers and some of the deputies are also part of the ambush. They want to kill everyone and blame the Elder brothers. When the wagons pull onto a low bridge, the plan is launched. The driver stops on the bridge. John senses the trap and pushes the driver off and takes his gun. One set of brothers jump into the water on each side of the bride.

Morgan and his men open fire. The wagon driver with Latta pulls a gun and orders him to drop his rifle. The Elders hid in some roots. They need more weapons, so Bud and Tom swim back to the wagon. Tom gets a rifle and sees the man holding a gun on Latta. He shots and hits the man. The wounded man runs away freeing Latta. Bud and Tom use the horses for cover as they get back to the bridge.

Curley and Bondie come to where the other fake deputies are located. They have dynamite in the wagon, and Curley wraps a handful of sticks together. The Elders move back, and Curley throws the explosives under the bridge. John sees the dynamite, yells, and jumps in the river. Matt has a large wooden splinter in his stomach. He dies before he can say what he wants.

Curley and his bunch attack and Latta watches from behind a tree. John is fighting like a madman, using multiple guns. John kills Curley and another man. Bud gets hit. Latta calls for John to throw him a gun so he can help. Morgan takes aim at Latta. Dave tries to stop him, but Morgan slaps him away. Latta leaps for the gun and Morgan shoots him out of the air. Great scene. When Morgan leaves, the rest of the fake deputies take off.  

Tom wants to run, but John says they have to take the remaining wagon back to town to get help for Bud. John drives the buckboard into town with the three remaining brothers. The hole up in the blacksmith’s barn. John sends for the doctor. John has the blacksmith take off the leg irons.

Harry comes over to talk, and John tells him he can prove he was in Pecos when the Sheriff was killed. John wants a US Marshal. The doctor comes into the barn. They let the blacksmith go free. Harry orders the mob to disperse. The doc works into the night on Bud. Tom is now concerned with Bud being raised correctly.

Morgan and Dave wait at the gun shop. Men mill in the street and the real deputies protect the barn from attack. Morgan slaps his son Dave around, and Dave flees. Tom sees Dave outside, and he tells John. John says Tom can’t go, but when he goes to tend Bud, Tom runs out. Tom sneaks across the town and captures Dave. Morgan sees what is going on from inside and shoots Tom in the back. The two have a running gun battle, but Morgan gives up the chase when he gets close to the barn.  

Tom pushes Dave into the barn. John begins questioning him. Well really enhanced interrogation. Creepy back shooting Morgan breaks a window and fires. However, he hits Dave as John spins him around. As the wounded Dave staggers towards his father, he says he didn’t talk, still trying to impress his father. Harry gets the drop on Morgan who tries to talk his way out of trouble. Harry opens the barn door, and Morgan runs away.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

Dave confesses about his father killing the Elder dad, the Sheriff, and Latta. Harry hears the confession. Dave dies. Harry wants John’s gun. Tom falls down next to the wounded Bud. Harry asks one more time to let the law handle it, but John says he has to do it himself.

John does the John Wayne walk to the gunsmith shop. John opens the door, and Morgan starts firing. John dives into the darkness. John throws a can but can’t get Morgan. Finally, he rolls a keg of gunpowder across the floor. John dives out the door into the street and fires hitting the gunpowder. The store is blown to bits.

John hands his gun to Harry. John begins to walk away, and Mary calls him back. She says Bud will be okay with care and Tom says it will take more than one bullet to kill him. When John walks by Katie’s rocking chair, he pushes it and starts it rocking.  

World-Famous Short Summary – When the boys are really down, tell them to win one for the Katie

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Beware the moors

[2] Rotten Tomatoes
[3] New York Times
[4] Wikipedia – Dennis Hopper
[5] Wikipedia – Dalton Gang

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

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