Directed by Burt Kennedy
Taw Jackson (John Wayne) is paroled after being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit so that local businessman Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) could take his ranch for the gold that was on it. Taw plans to steal a large shipment of gold being transported from his former ranch by Pierce on a stagecoach known as “The War Wagon.” To do so he assembles a heist crew and they must stick together long enough to pull off the biggest job of their lives.
I’m not sure if I ever actually saw this movie until writing this review. If I did it’s been a great many years since. I kind of feel bad that I didn’t put it in sooner. It’s a very enjoyable film. It’s not the greatest of John Wayne’s movies but it’s definitely up there.
Jackson has come to town with vengeance on his mind in the form of a robbery to break the man that took everything from him. In a cool plot twist in order to do what he wants to do he must team with the man that tried to kill him a few years prior. Lomax (Kirk Douglas) is a safecracker and a gun for hire and Taw Jackson needs him to steal the gold dust shipment.
Like any heist film they assemble a cast of contrasting characters. There is the late great Keenan Wynn as Wes Fletcher who bartered for his “wife.” He has a short fuse and is a bit greedier than the rest.
There’s Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker Jr.)-a drunken explosives expert. His character here is set up to appear as the one most likely to cause everything to fall apart as he’s young and drunk and a bit of a loudmouth as well as having an eye for Fletcher’s young wife.
Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel) is a native American criminal. Keel was a good actor but doesn’t get too much time here. His character doesn’t get much of a story arc in the film and it just really ends for him by his character returning to his people.
This is nothing more than a heist movie. The heist film genre in and of itself is well-worn territory but off the top of my head I can’t recall too many set in the west. Doing so here gives the concept a fresh spin.
John Wayne was the ultimate cowboy actor. He did it and he did it very well throughout his career. His characters were generally larger than life and tougher than tough with a fatherly edge to almost every one of them. His characters sought justice and to do the right thing. The character of Taw Jackson is no different in that respect here. Only here justice is not handed out not by a lawman but rather by Jackson and his theft.
Kirk Douglas was a far superior actor to John Wayne. I don’t think that can be debated. Kirk Douglas was an actor and took on a variety of roles throughout his career. He did dramas and biographies and westerns and even a little science fiction. And each of his characters were different to one extent or another. The difference in the abilities of Wayne and Douglas only becomes apparent in the longer scenes between them. Kirk Douglas tends to outshine John Wayne in a film in a genre that Wayne generally tends to own. That doesn’t take away from the quality of the film here. Together they produced a great western.
This movie is a fun western romp and a good John Wayne movie. If you are a fan of classic westerns and haven’t seen this one, then get right out and watch it. It is a great film.