Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Character Who Wasn't There

In honor of Mother's Day, I'd like to talk about a good old Western. I know. Mother's Day and westerns don't seem to go together. But the movie I'd like to highlight today has a very strong maternal influence. Last Saturday, I wandered into the living room where hubby was watching one of John Wayne's all time greats, The Sons of Katie Elder.

But how can this be a movie honoring mothers when we never see her throughout the entire movie? No, I'm not talking about the Invisible Man/Woman/Honey I Shrunk the Kids scenario. When the story opens, Katie has already died. We see her staunch personality through the eyes of the townspeople as her four prodigal sons interview them to find out who swindled her out of the family ranch and who killed their pa. It is her friends and neighbors who watched Katie endure the humiliation of three no 'count sons (the fourth she had sent off to school) and a gambling husband who didn't deserve her.

A word about the four sons. If it weren't enough that the second son, Tom (played by Dean Martin,) takes after his father, and Matt, (played by Earl Holoman,) has a history of trouble, the eldest, John (played by John Wayne,) is a gunfighter. We'll find out in a minute how much Katie hated killing. The last son, Bud, (played by Michael Anderson, Jr.,) is the last redemption for this dysfunctional family. He was away at college when his mother died. But he thinks now he can quit school and join the band of brothers in their misdeeds. To the older brothers' credits, and in my best John Wayne accent, "It ain'a gonna happen, mister."

In the beginning of the movie, we are drawn in to this family through Katie. She's the one who has sacrificed for the people she loves. She has two dresses to her name while she gave selflessly to others in need. All her other resources went to send Bud, the youngest, to school. We see she had spunk when she had arranged with a man from Pecos to take his overabundance of horses off his hands, even though she had no money. But she had been willing to deal, and suggested that when she sold the horses, they both would profit. This, the brothers surmise, was to keep Bud in school. Furthermore, we find out through the town and through Katie's friend, a young woman named Mary Gordon, (played by Martha Hyer,) that Katie wouldn't want her boys to find out who killed their father and stole the ranch, because that would only lead to more killing. During a telling scene into Katie's character between Mary and John, she tells him that Katie wanted her to read his letters. But, Mary points out, when the tone changed, presumably as John spiraled into the killing lifestyle, she noticed something had changed--but Katie did not.

A mother's love. The closest thing to God's unconditional love on this earth.

The four brothers provide plenty of lighter moments as they bicker and roughhouse. One memorable scene is when Bud is sassing off to big brother John about going back to school. John tells him, "All we want to do is make you end up rich and respectable." Bud replies, "I don't want to be rich and respectable. I want to be just like the rest of you."

But the most poignant scene is when they're discussing a monument to Katie after John finds the family Bible. Bud suggests a stone angel. He'd seen one with it's finger pointing up. But someone shot the finger off and then it just looked like it was shaking its fist. Matt suggests something of marble, and Tom's contribution is a horse.

"A horse?" John asks with a distasteful look on his face.

"Why not?" Tom says. "Ma liked horses."

Matt joins in. "How would you like to spend eternity with a horse on top of you?"

John reins them all in. Katie, he says, wants them to amount to something. That's the monument they should give to honor her love.

And through the rest of the movie, they try to do what Katie would want them to do, despite insurmountable odds.

To me, The Sons of Katie Elder is not only an excellent way to study characterization even for off screen characters, it's the perfect Mother's Day movie.


Robbie Iobst said...

Wonderful post!! I haven't seen that movie in so long but now I'm going have to get it and watch it again. You are a great writer.

Kathy Kovach... said...

Thanks, Robbie! I have always loved this movie, but now that I'm a mom, it speaks to me on a deeper level.