ReWatch: The War Wagon

  • Directed by Burt Kennedy
  • May 27, 1967

I recently popped in again one of my favorite Westerns The War Wagon starring the legendary John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. I hope you enjoy.

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After being released from prison, a former rancher who was set up to take the fall for a crime plots to rob the mining baron that framed him and assembles a heist crew that must stick together long enough to pull off the biggest job of their lives.

Kirk Douglas and John Wayne. Two screen legends together in one film. And it’s a Western! Two of my favorite old-school actors in an old-school Western that has become a personal favorite of mine. I have had this for a relatively short time in comparison to other films but have revisited quite frequently.

The War Wagon is a heist film set in the Old West. Taw Jackson (John Wayne) must assemble a motley crew in order to steal the gold from the titular vehicle-a heavily armored stagecoach complete with a Gatling gun and a whole bunch of armed guards. This isn’t a serious film but more of a heist or action comedy. The jokes are not sidesplitting, but you will laugh at them. They come consistently throughout.

I have often said John Wayne could bring the goods but needed a director who could push him that extra step to get to that point. Too often though directors would let the success of the film depend on Wayne’s stardom and not any actual talent. In films like Red River, The Cowboys, True Grit, The Searchers or his swan song The Shootist he really performed but in so many others he did not and I blame the directors.

I might need to amend that a little bit because Kirk Douglas was a fine actor consistently no matter how good or bad whatever he was in was. Having rewatched this for the umpteenth time I think Wayne could bring the goods when he had a consistently good actor to work with. Kirk Douglas for example or even his frequent female costar Maureen O’Hara.

In his scenes with Douglas, Douglas is the better actor but Wayne definitely ups his game. He’s a little more nuanced and goes into himself a little deeper to put character first and the John Wayne persona second. Wayne makes Jackson also a charming rogue rather than just a tougher than tough someone seeking the only justice he can get.

Jackson is out for revenge. As per usual for a Wayne character, Jackson is a man to be feared. Not because he is evil but because if he is wronged he will seek justice and tougher than anyone you could send at him. That is why he had to go to prison. Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) knew that if Jackson was not taken care of in some way that there would be Hell to pay.

John Wayne was the ultimate cowboy actor. He did it very well throughout his career. His characters were generally larger than life and tougher than tough with a fatherly edge to every one of them. His characters sought justice as well as 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.

His main goal was to rob the fortified wagon blind with the help of his friends, but he wouldn’t mind if it broke local businessman Frank Pierce. Pierce is gobbling up the land in the area any way he can. It started with Jackson and by the time of the film he has moved on to forcing out the local Kiowa as well.

This film is one of my favorite Bruce Cabot performances. He was much better as a bit of an asshole bad guy than he was as the close friend good guy. I don’t think he could’ve played dastardly villains. I’m willing to be wrong on that if he did at some point in his career but he was more of a ruthless businessman here than anything else.

Kirk Douglas is hired gun Lomax. No last name. Or is it first? He’s a charming man who works for the highest dollar. While Taw Jackson has a beef with him, Lomax really doesn’t have a beef with Jackson. He was hired to do a job and didn’t quite succeed. Being that Lomax is willing to work for the highest bidder this probably explains why Jackson is willing to bring him onto the gang other than his safe cracking abilities.

Like any heist film they assemble a cast of contrasting and unstable characters. From the start the group is about to tear itself apart. There is the late great Keenan Wynn as Wes Fletcher who bartered for his “wife” Kate (Valora Noland) for $20 and a horse with her parents. He has a short fuse and is a bit greedier than the rest.

There’s Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker Jr.)-a drunken explosives expert that has the shakes because they are keeping him sober. His character here is set up to appear as the one most likely to cause everything to fall apart as he’s young 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. There was so much potential in the character. He was one of the few in ANY Wayne film that jerked around the Duke’s character and got away with it. The scene when they recruited the local Kiowa was gold and I thought Wayne handled it great too.

There is plenty of action along with the humor in The War Wagon. There is no shortage of that and it’s a pretty exciting film. The big payoff is obviously the robbery and it’s a great bit of action. And that heist as well as the film manages to end on a humorous note.

The War Wagon is a great piece of old Hollywood Western filmmaking. It’s a fun and exciting film with great characters in a unique story for the genre. If you want a great fun movie then this is something you should check out. I highly recommend it!

Published by warrenwatchedamovie

Just a movie lover trying spread the love.

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