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Film / The Sons of Katie Elder

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This is a family reunion you don't want to be on the wrong side of.

The Sons of Katie Elder is a 1965 Western directed by Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin.

The plot concerns the eponymous four sons of Katie Elder, who return to their hometown of Clearwater, Texas, after their mother dies. None of them are particularly successful; John (Wayne) is a Gunslinger, Tom (Martin) is a gambler, Matt (Earl Holliman) is a failed hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) is a hot-headed 17-year-old who has refused to go to college. Despite this, they vow to take care of Katie’s last few affairs and move on with their lives.

However, they discover that during their absence, their father died under suspicious circumstances and their mother was forced off the family ranch into a small homestead to live in poverty. Figuring that something is afoot, they begin to look into the affairs of Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), the rich gunsmith who now has the land. However, their questions end up stirring up trouble within the community, and it isn’t long before lead is flying.


The film was Very Loosely Based on a True Story, specifically an incident that occurred in Graham, Texas, and Marlow, Oklahoma, that involved the Marlow brothers fighting a personal battle against a mob (though there were five brothers, not four). Some of the events that happened there are present in the film, like a mob gathering in front of a jail and an ambushed prison convoy on a river. More information about that incident can be read on That Other Wiki.


The Sons of Katie Elder contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parent: Morgan Hastings comes off as this. He continually talks down to his full-grown son, and even slaps him around if he starts questioning him.
  • An Aesop: The movie makes multiple criticisms of gun-usage; John Elder is criticized for wearing his gun, Deputy Latta is criticized for thinking about holding off a mob using a guns rather than talking them down like Sheriff Billy would have, and the Big Bad of the movie runs a gun store.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Bass Elder is described as one by many of the townsfolk, and even his sons admit that he was often pretty tipsy when he was alive.
  • Badass Family: The Elder brothers are more than capable of taking on hired gunmen and surviving numerous attempts on their lives. It also helps that two of them are John Wayne and Dean Martin.
  • Bandit Clan: The citizens of Clearwater think the Elder brothers are this, particularly after they’re framed for Sheriff Billy’s death.
  • Bar Brawl: Narrowly averted by John Elder and Sheriff Billy, who stop Tom and Bud from taking on Curley in a crowded bar room.
  • The Bartender: One is present during the bar scene, and another one was killed by Tom in another town.
  • Big Bad: Morgan Hastings, who killed Bass Elder and took the Elder ranch through underhanded means. He wants to hold onto the land, and does all he can to prevent the Elder brothers from investigating (eventually going as far as murder).
  • Big Brother Worship: Bud really admires John and hopes to follow in his footsteps as a Gunslinger (despite John’s insistence that it isn’t a glorified job at all).
  • Black-and-White Morality: Played with initially, as while there is no doubt that Hastings is a bad guy, it seems ambivalent as to whether the Elder brothers are all that good either (with John being a gunslinger, Tom a gambler, and Bud a hot-headed young man). However, their actions with the rest of the characters makes it clear that they are indeed good people trying to avoid trouble, but have just been unfairly treated by the townsfolk and are continually being pushed by Hastings into action.
  • Blatant Lies: John isn’t fooled by the banker’s assertion that he can’t remember the exact nature of Hastings getting the Elder ranch.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: When Morgan Hastings says he won the Elder ranch from Bass in a game of blackjack, John remarks that Bass never played it as it was “a woman’s game”. After he and Tom leave, Tom remarks that Bass played blackjack many times (even with his own sons). John then reveals that he simply said that to gauge Hastings’ reaction, which seemed to be quite nervous. This tells John that Hastings probably knew something about Bass’s death and hopes his shakedown will cause Hastings to panic. It does, but Sheriff Billy pays the price.
  • Butt-Monkey: Dave Hastings is definitely this trope. His father treats him like a joke and everybody that comes across him seem to almost ignore him.
  • Cattle Drive: The Elder brothers go on one after getting Striker to allow them to drive them to Colorado for the miners to use.
  • Convicted by Public Opinion: The Elder brothers are held responsible for the death of Sheriff Billy by the townsfolk, solely based on the fact he was killed outside of Katie’s house.
    • Tom Elder also claims this is why he fled another town after killing a barkeep. As he was an outsider and the barkeep was well known, he was scared that the town would unfairly convict him of murder instead of recognizing it as self-defense.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Morgan Hastings is one, owning a large gun store and having a variety of other businesses springing up from his successful takeover of the Elders’ ranch. When he fears the brothers may find out how he actually got the land, he does everything he can to stop them from finding the truth (even if that means killing them).
  • Cowboy Cop: Deputy Latta is an unflattering mix of this and Inspector Javert. Impatient and hot-headed, he's willing to have John Elder thrown out of town on the strength of his reputation alone, and after a humiliating ride into town after trying to prematurely arrest the Elder Brothers, his feelings sour even further. He is routinely called out for poor thinking and shaky logic, though he doesn't start to listen until he finds himself on the receiving end of a certain "The Reason You Suck" Speech with a mob at the door.
  • Crime of Self-Defense: Tom Elder fled another town after he killed a bartender in self-defense, but was scared that the locals would kill him because he was an outsider.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: John manages to defeat Curley with a single blow to the head with an axe handle.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Mary says that Katie didn’t want her children looking into Bass’s death, as she feared that it would just result in “more killing”. However, this becomes an Averted Trope in that not only do the Elders take revenge against Hastings, they also wipe out his son and other associates, preventing the cycle from continuing any further.
  • Deathbed Confession: Dave Hastings makes one, telling of his father’s involvement in the deaths of Bass Elder and Sheriff Billy.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: The story starts off with the sons gathering for Katie Elder’s funeral, with their father Bass Elder dead from six months earlier. Both of the Elder parents are described good parents, though only Katie is considered this unequivocally. Bass was a bit of a drunk and gambler, but his sons seem to look at this as a minor character flaw and recall him fondly.
  • The Dreaded: John Elder is this for many of the townsfolk, particularly with Morgan Hastings (who hires Curley for protection even when he wasn’t sure if John was coming back) and Deputy Ben Latta (who wants to arrest him for his reputation). Given how good he is with his guns and the fact he’s played by John Wayne, their fear seems well justified.
  • The Drifter: John and Tom seem to be this, wandering from place to place in order to etch out a living in their respective trades.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Dave Hastings doesn’t want to kill Deputy Latta during the prison convoy battle, as he’s uninvolved with the Elders and had been helpful to him before. However, his father quickly smacks him and shoots Latta as he goes for a gun.
  • Evil Wears Black: Both Morgan Hastings and Curley wear black frontier wear, along with the mandatory black cowboy hats.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Hastings is calm and polite when talking to John and Tom about how he got their ranch from his father. However, he becomes nasty behind their backs and even plots to have them killed when he thinks they know too much.
  • Feuding Families: The Elder clan comes to blows with the Hastings family once it becomes clear that Morgan Hastings killed Bass Elder and took their land illegally. The Elder family comes out on top.
  • Frameup: Hastings kills Sheriff Billy outside the Elders’ current residence in an attempt to frame them for the Sheriff’s death.
  • Frontier Doctor: John and Tom send for one once they’re holed up in the barn to help an injured Bud.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: The Elder brothers are all decked out in traditional light-colored cowboy garb, while Curley and Morgan Hastings wear dark clothes and cowboy hats.
  • The Gunfighter Wannabe: Bud wants to be a gunslinger like John, but it’s clear he’s all talk and doesn’t have the stuff it takes to take anybody on.
  • Gun Nut: Hastings himself, as he owns a gun shop and is seen beaming over particularly endearing models.
  • Gunslinger: John Elder is a particularly infamous one, though he has eluded the law’s wrath for the time being.
  • Guns Akimbo: After Matt’s death, John picks up two guns and starts unloading on the hired guns. Subverted that he doesn’t manage to hit anybody and has to grab a rifle to snipe any of them (though his double guns does make them duck for a while).
  • Happily Married: Despite his alcoholism, Bass and Katie were said to be this.
  • He Knows Too Much: Why Morgan Hastings shoots Sheriff Billy and eventually his own son.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: Deputy Latta realizes that the Elders have been set-up and tries to help them out during the prison transport, but he’s killed just as they toss him a gun.
  • Hidden Weapons: Tom keeps a knife in his boot, and he whips it out when he’s ready to do a jailbreak from the uppity townsfolk.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: It’s the explosive gunpowder within his own gunshop that ends up killing Morgan Hastings.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Mr. Striker, despite his oddities, seems to be perfectly honest when discussing his operation with the Elders.
  • Hostage Situation: A rare heroic example with the Elders, who take the local blacksmith hostage in his barn after escaping the prison convoy and demand a doctor address Bud’s wounds. Once he does, they let both the doctor and blacksmith go, but stay holed up in the barn until the Marshals come to pick them up.
  • Hot-Blooded: Bud Elder qualifies, as everything he does seems to be over-the-top and emotional, often forcing his older brothers to reign him in.
  • I Just Want to Be Badass: Bud Elder doesn’t want to go to college and desires to become a Gunslinger like John. However, all of his brothers point out how unfit he is for that kind of work. Given how easily he gets injured during the prison convoy attack, they probably have a point.
  • Improvised Weapon: John grabs an axe handle to smack Curley in the head with when the latter is torturing the undertaker.
  • Informed Ability: Curley is said to be a tough and competent Hired Gun, and more than a match for John Elder. However, he doesn’t do anything that advanced compared to the rest of the goons (outside of using the dynamite on the bridge) and actually crumples whenever he faces John.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Mr. Striker seems to operate by this. He says he came to do business with Katie Elder, despite the fact her business proposal (buying hundreds of horses she had no money to pay for) would be unlikely to succeed. Though he does still go through it with her sons instead (though they too have no money), he sticks with the plan simply because he hasn’t taken big enough risks recently and says he needs to do something foolish with his life.
  • Inspector Javert: Deputy Latta becomes this once he becomes convinced that the Elders murdered Sheriff Billy.
  • Ironic Name: The bad to the bone, black-wearing Hired Gun Hastings hires to protect him from John Elder goes by the name of... Curley.
  • It's Always Sunny at Funerals: Katie’s funeral takes place in the heavy daylight. Justified, given how it’s in Central Texas during the summer.
  • It Was a Gift: Katie’s rocking chair was one Bass made to give her as a wedding present, being one of the few things he was able to make correctly. John gives it to Mary after she voices interest in having it.
  • Kangaroo Court: Judge Evers and Deputy Latta move the Elders to be tried at Laredo, as they fear that the town is too biased against the Elders to allow an impartial jury.
    • Tom Elder says this is why he fled after killing the barkeep, saying that he would’ve faced this if he had been made to stand trial.
  • Killing in Self-Defense: What Tom says he did with an uppity barkeeper in another town.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: In-Universe, as Bud groans when Matt tells him he should “respect your Elder” (as in his older brother, not just his elders in general).
  • Last Request: Katie Elder made one years before her death, trading a grey horse she had to the undertaker. In return, he would do her funeral for her with no further demand of payment from her sons.
  • Loser Son of Loser Dad: The townsfolk may have lots of respect for Katie Elder, but that doesn’t extend to the men’s father Bass. Many seem to think their less-than-successful lives come from Bass’s side of the family and are more than willing to believe that they’re some bad apples.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Katie Elder’s funeral shows how much the community of Clearwater loved her, as well as revealing how little three of her own children saw of her in her final years.
  • Mood Whiplash: Tom's lighthearted raffle of a glass eye quickly turns dangerous when Curley starts goading Tom and Bud by insulting Bass.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Mr. Vennar most definitely qualifies. He takes a bit too much pleasure in telling the Elders how Katie has absolutely no money to leave to them. He also conveniently doesn’t seem to remember the specifics of the transaction that gave Hastings the Elder land (despite having to have been a big transfer given the amount of land), blaming a recent fire that burned all their records.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Bud Elder is still a 17-year-old and thinks he can take on all of the family’s threats by himself. A few bullets later show him that it isn’t that simple.
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: All of the Elder brothers seem to suffer this, as the townsfolk look down upon them as failures at best and criminals at worst.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Morgan Hastings ends up hurting his cause twice with the Elder brothers. The first happens when he orders Curley to question the undertaker about what he was talking about with John Elder. However, this just leads to a confrontation between John and Curley that raises John’s suspicions about Hastings even more. The second occurs when he ambushes the Elders’ prison transport, which allows them to escape and begin their Roaring Rampage of Revenge against him.
  • The Not-Love Interest: Mary Gordon talks often with John Elder about his mother and tries to help him and his brothers out when she can. But the film never implies any sort of romantic connection, and she comes off as more of a friend of John’s than a girlfriend.
  • Offing the Offspring: Morgan Hastings shoots his son Dave when he fears he'll tell John Elder and the Judge their crimes. It doesn't work, as Dave manages to spill all their crimes right before he dies.
  • One-Hit Kill: John manages to floor Curley with just one hit during their first scuffle, and kills him with one bullet during their second.
    • Hastings is also able to kill Sheriff Billy with one shot of his sniper rifle, and does the same to Deputy Latta during the prison convoy ambush.
  • Outlaw: John is suspected of being one, but currently has no warrants. However, it turns out Tom is one, as he’s wanted for the murder of a barkeep in another town (though he claims it was self-defense).
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Morgan Hastings outlives his son Dave for just a few minutes. Made even worse because Morgan was the one who killed Dave.
  • PG Explosives: The explosion that collapses the bridge the Elder brothers are hiding under and kills Matt is this. Other than a little blood, Matt looks pretty decent for being caught close to an explosion. Somewhat justified as he’s killed by shrapnel and not the explosion itself.
  • Posse: Deputy Latta and Judge Evers form one to go after the Elders when they suspect they killed Sheriff Billy.
  • Posthumous Character: Both Katie Elder and her husband Bass are this. Their deaths are what causes the Elder brothers to come together in the first place.
  • Preacher Man: The town preacher is there to give Katie her burial, and regrets that he couldn’t say more beautiful things about her because of her generosity.
  • Price on Their Head: Tom has got one, having killed a barkeep in another town and is wanted for murder.
  • Professional Gambler: Tom Elder is one, drifting from town to town and making money off a variety of card games and raffles. Somewhat of a subdued version as he doesn’t dress fancy and seems to only just be getting by.
  • Properly Paranoid: Hastings fears that the Elders suspect him of killing their father. He turns out to be right, but in an interesting Deconstruction, it was only because of his paranoid actions that the brothers figured out something was wrong and eventually do figure out he was the one responsible.
  • Psycho for Hire: Curley qualifies for this, as he seems to take a little too much joy in abusing the undertaker and trying to kill the Elders.
  • Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: The Judge tells John and Tom to do this when they’re holed up in the barn. They don’t bite.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Sheriff Billy Wilson does his best to prevent any conflicts from breaking out, keeping both the Elders and Hastings from striking against each other. He also stops Deputy Latta from trying to muscle the Elders out of town, knowing that would just exacerbate things further. It’s only when Hastings kills him that things really go to hell.
  • Right Under Their Noses: When Tom decides to sneak out of the barn to catch Dave Hastings, he goes out the back entrance and walks right down the street. He keeps his face in the shadows, and everybody is so focused on the barn that nobody notices him walking past them.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Both the sheriff and Morgan Hastings are worried about the Elder brothers going on this against the Hastings because of their father’s mysterious death and mother’s squalor living conditions before she died. Their fears become a reality once Hastings bushwhacks the Elder brothers’ prison convey, killing Matt and wounding Bud. This causes John and Tom to come back to town for vengeance.
  • Scare 'Em Straight: Katie did this with Bud years ago to convince him to go to college and give up dreams of being a Gunslinger like John. She had the local undertaker pretend as if Bud stole his horse, then made Bud flee to college in order to escape the law’s wrath.
  • Shamed by a Mob: The Elders are derided while being held in prison for the death of Sheriff Billy, and it’s this that forces Deputy Latta to move them to Laredo for safekeeping.
  • The Sheriff: Sheriff Billy helps run the town of Clearwater.
  • Shipped in Shackles: The Elder brothers are chained together during their journey to Laredo and have to get a blacksmith to take it off them when they escape.
  • Shopkeeper: Mr. Peevy owns the local general store, and pays the Elder brothers back for services Katie rendered for his wife.
  • Sniper Rifle: Hastings uses an Old West version of this, picking off Sheriff Billy and Deputy Latta with it from far off cliffsides.
  • So Proud of You: A rather depressing aversion. Neither Bass nor Katie ever voiced any sort of praise on their grown sons before they died (even though Katie still loved them). It’s clear that this deeply hurt all of them, as they held her in quite a high opinion.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead: Curley tries to pick a fight with Bud by claiming his father was a drunk and a gambler. Luckily, John manages to defuse the situation.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: Katie’s funeral is the catalyst for the story, bringing the brothers together and bringing up tensions with the Hastings family.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Three of the Elder brothers are this to some degree (Bud excluded, as he was still living with Katie when she died), as they have been away for years on various ventures. But it's particularly strong with John, whom everyone seems to be suspicious of ever since he gained infamy as a gunslinger.
  • Stupid Evil: Morgan Hastings seems to almost go out of his way to make his plan fail. Despite having a good alibi for having the land with the deeded contract and no records that could disprove it because of the bank fire, he decides to kill Sheriff Billy and frame the Elders for it, simply because Tom Elder might've been suspicious based on one conversation they had. However, the brothers weren't all that interested at the time, as they decided to run horses up to Colorado instead of sticking around to look into Hastings more. It's only when they're arrested for the killing that the brothers really step up to put Hastings down for good. Most of the second half could've been avoided if Hastings had just done nothing.
  • That Man Is Dead: In a fit of anger, John proclaims that the young and innocent John Elder Katie raised is long gone.
  • Together in Death: Katie is buried next to her long-deceased husband Bass, whom she still loved despite his flaws.
  • Tom the Dark Lord: The bad-to-the-bone Gunslinger that Hastings hires is called...Curley.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The townsfolk come pretty close to starting up a mob to raid the jail and lynch the Elder brothers.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Katie Elder kept all of John’s old letters to remember him by, even after he became the infamous gunslinger he is currently. Mary kept them after Katie’s death and later gives them to John, but he throws them in a fire during a fit of anger.
  • Twilight of the Old West: Downplayed example. It's 1898, and there’s clearly more of a "civilized" air to Clearwater than the typical Western town with its Sheriff and heavy focus on preventing mob justice. There's also an emphasis on big business taking over much of the town, with Morgan Hastings owning much of the buildings and businesses instead of the usual "Mom and Pop" stores.
  • The Voice: The shopkeeper's wife is never seen, but she can be heard shouting down at him when Bud and Tom go to settle Katie's debt in the store.
  • "Wanted!" Poster: Tom turns out to have one, having killed a man in another town.
  • Water Torture: Curley dunks the undertaker in a barrel of water to get him to talk about John Elder. Luckily, John’s there to quickly put an end to it.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Elders fight each other on two separate instances; the first when they want to force Bud to go to college, the second when they are in prison and debating whether to use violence to escape their cell.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Dave Hastings really seems to want his father’s respect. However, Mr. Hastings seems more interested in his guns and his hold on the town than his son’s interests.
    • The Elder brothers also feel guilty that none of them amounted to anything and think they were disappointments to their mother.
  • The Western: Definitely a prime example, given how it takes place in 1890s Texas and stars John Wayne.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: Implied to be Katie Elder’s reaction to the way her sons ended up.
  • The World's Expert on Getting Killed: Curley was a hired gun brought in by Hastings to take care of John Elder should he start trouble. However, his first fight with John is a Curb-Stomp Battle that John dominates in. His second battle with the prison convoy is worse, as he gets killed by the Elders.
  • The X of Y
  • You Killed My Father: John suspects Hastings had something to do with Bass Elder’s mysterious death. He turns out to be right.
  • Young Gun: Bud Elder, the youngest of the Elder brothers: a hot-headed 17 year old.