The War Wagon

PLOT:

John Wayne and Kirk Douglas spend half of The War Wagon trying to knock one another off and the other half working shoulder to shoulder. Settling an old score with avaricious mine owner Bruce Cabot, Wayne plans to steal a $500,000 gold shipment from his enemy. Douglas, at first hired by Cabot to kill Wayne, goes along with the robbery scheme. Also in on the plan is Howard Keel, superbly cast as a world-weary, wisecracking Native American (it’s the sort of part that nowadays would go to Graham Greene). The titular war wagon is the armor-plated, Gatling-gun fortified stagecoach wherein Cabot’s gold is transported. Thus the stage is set for a slam-bang finale, and director Burt Kennedy isn’t about to disappoint the viewers.

What people are saying:

“…that comparative rarity, a Western filmed with quiet good humor. It is also a point of departure for John Wayne, who plays a bad guy for just about the first time in his career” 4 stars

“John Wayne (in his 162nd film) joins forces with Kirk Douglas in this revenge Western that propagates rather dangerously vigilante justice, a theme Clint Eastwood will carry to an extreme in the Dirty Harry pictures.” 3 1/2 stars

“The expected clash of two headliners in the same Western is not as apparent as expected, it plays out as a mildly amusing adventure with Douglas’ lighter approach helping to offset Wayne who is as ever unchanged in another gunfighter role.” 3 stars

“This is a “caper” film, about what would be a heist in other circumstances. Since the ethics of the perpetrators are those which should have made the authorities make the robbery unnecessary, their act is justified in this situation. This noir western is a bit slick-appearing at some times; but it is physically attractive, has a good cast portraying colorful and somewhat desperate characters, and a strong theme song. Dimitri Tiomkin supplied the very capable score; and Burt Kennedy did a solid job of directing throughout. The very appealing storyline concerns Taw Jackson, played ably by John Wayne, who returns from prison to get back what he can from Bruce Cabot, who stole his ranch and framed him. All he can do is to recruit a group of “mission fighters”, beginning with the man who had shot him 5 years earlier, Lomax, played by dynamic Kirk Douglas-and raid the “war wagon”–his enemy’s vehicle for transporting gold, a Gatling-Gun-equipped armored stagecoach. Taw’s team includes a drunken young dynamite expert he met in prison Robert Walker Jr., Keenan Wynn who is insanely jealous of his young wife, Valora Noland as the wife, Levi Walking Bear in the charismatic person of Howard Keel, his liaison to needed Indian allies, and more. Gene Evans, Joanna Barnes, Ann McRea, Terry Wilson and Frank Mcgrath are among those also doing good professional work in this interesting narrative. Only Noland is a bit weak in this cast. There are some humorous lines and interesting character moments as Wayne assembles his group and plots an attack worthy of “The Dirty Dozen” or “Where Eagles Dare”, involving trees that fall at the right moment, Indians faking an attack as a diversion, dynamite used to block off access to a bridge, and a log that swings down and opens the rolling piggy bank violently. What happens after this successful robbery leads to a compromised denouement and ending; but the film is vividly put together, professionally mounted and decently scripted by Clair Huffaker from his own novel. The film stands as a reminder of what any well-made film about an ethical central character can provide relative to any un-ethical and not-fictional man’s story competing for a cinema viewer’s attention. Moments such as Wayne’s visit to his ranch and his talk with the man who stole it, the recruiting of Lomax, the relations of the group, and the raid itself are all memorable. Underrated and always visually interesting.” 4 stars

“Fun tongue in cheek Western that survives an initial slow start to be entertaining afterwards throughout. Both John Wayne and Kirk Douglas do great and have tremendous on screen chemistry together. Their friendly,competitive rivalry that mirrors their off screen persona’s. Works extremely well and carries what would have otherwise been an average western. Even though they had their differences in real life, such as politics, you can tell they had a real respect for one another, and this movie does a good job of capturing that. One of the few roles that put the Duke on the wrong side of the law. Let down by the Western scenery, but was impressed with Howard Keel. I liked it but seeing Wayne and Douglas jell as well as they did makes me wish they could have joined together for a better Western. Good but unspectacular movie is highlighted by a hilarious bar room brawl and an extremely catchy theme.” 3 1/2 stars

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