His Mother’s Son: Dean Martin in “The Sons of Katie Elder”

Dean Martin was a singer who successfully made the transition from singer to actor. For every success in this endeavor (like Mark Walberg), there are probably at least ½ dozen who proved that it wasn’t always easy. And some who proved that it was a HUGE mistake to even try. (Neil Diamond comes to mind, here, as does Mariah Carey).

Martin had previously starred with John Wayne in Howard Hawks‘ classic movie Rio Bravo, and he had a career both before and after in a variety of movies. He was Matt Helm, a sort of counterpoint to James Bond, in several movies (The Silencers, Murderer’s Row, The Wrecking Crew and The Ambushers). He was also a part of the Rat Pack and appeared with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in the original Ocean’s 11. Not to mention a plethora of movies in which he starred with his comedy team partner, Jerry Lewis.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

In this film, Dean Martin plays one of four sons of Katie Elder. They have come to Clearwater to attend the funeral of their mother. Tom (Martin), Matt (Earl Holliman) and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) wait for their big brother, John (John Wayne) at the train station, but John doesn’t arrive on the train. An unknown man, later revealed to be a hired gunman, Curley (George Kennedy), does.

The star of the movie, of course, is John Wayne, but Martin does a great job in the co-star role. He plays a gambler, and is constantly trying to entice people into bets on the most ridiculous chances (including trying to get his brothers to bet him on where the train will stop in the early part of the movie). The brothers, minus John, go to Katie’s funeral (but John is there, albeit from a distance).

The boys expect to back to Katie’s ranch, but unfortunately, sometime in the preceding months, The Elder boys’ dad has gambled away the farm and it now belongs to Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), the same man who has hired Curley to come to his aid. He certainly can’t depend on his own son, a wimpy little weasel played by Dennis Hopper.

Why would a legitimate owner hire a gunman to protect his interests? Could it possibly be because the supposedly law-abiding citizen has not actually acquired the land by the means he claims? Well, if you know your western tropes, you already know the answer to that question. Especially since we find out that Daddy was shot in the back, and his murderer has not yet been discovered.

Dean Martin shines here as brother Tom. And he has a hidden past. He shot a man in self-defense, but ran away from the town before he could be brought to trial, since as an outsider and a notorious gambler, it would have been his word against the entire town, all of whom were respected friends of his victim. Of course, you know this comes back to haunt him when the sheriff of Clearwater, Billy (Paul Fix) and his deputy, Ben (Jeremy Slate), get wind of it.

To complicate matters, while Billy is at the Elder place, he is shot and killed by Hastings, who then proceeds to frame the Elder boys for the killing. But not content with just framing them, he also arranges for an ambush to occur while they are being transported from Clearwater to Laredo (the reason for the transport being to keep the boys safe from being lynched before a trial can occur).

You can’t get past a John Wayne movie without acknowledging his role here. Wayne is the most clear-headed of the brothers, acting as the voice of reason despite his siblings’ tendency to want to solve their problems expeditiously (read: with violence). Wayne is determined to keep his brothers in check, even if it means beating the crap out of them to do it.

But as the second oldest, Martin as Tom is the most endearing character. he has an insouciant charm that makes him the most memorable brother. (Despite my love of Wayne, he is pretty much the same character he has played dozens of times previously before this movie.) If you want to know how it all comes out, you haven’t watched enough westerns. But the way it turns out is still a classic finale. Although (spoiler alert!) only three brothers survive to the end. You’ll have to watch the movie to see which one meets his end, though.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

This article originally ran last year and is being reprinted as part of our ongoing tenth anniversary celebrations.