|War Wagon, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Monday, 17 August 1998|
For a while, it looked like Burt Kennedy might become one of the major Western figures; a few he wrote for Randolph Scott are still considered some of the best A-minus Westerns of the 1950s. He began directing in 1961, and his THE ROUNDERS (1964) showed real promise. He did a good, workmanlike job with THE WAR WAGON, an entertaining but hardly innovative adventure of the sort that John Wayne turned out for several decades. However, Kennedy never really worked on this level again, and THE WAR WAGON tends to be undeservedly overlooked by Western buffs.
Clair Huffaker based his script on his own novel Badman, but evidently resented the humor that Kennedy added. Huffaker may have been right; some of the humor, particularly that centered on Howard Keel's Indian character, is dated and forced.
Wayne is fresh out of prison, where he was sent on trumped-up charges he couldn't disprove. The frame-up was arranged by corrupt town boss Bruce Cabot, who's taken over Wayne's ranch -- and the gold mine on it. He now ships the gold to the railhead in a black, armored coach that gives the movie its title. When Wayne rides back into Emmett, New Mexico, he's determined to have his revenge on Cabot. Naturally, the town lawmen, Terry Wilson and Gene Evans, are deeply in Cabot's pocket.
Wayne has a plan to knock over the War Wagon and get millions in gold bullion, but he needs a team of experts. (This is really a caper movie in the guise of a Western.) He's not sure he can talk his first intended partner into going along with him; it's Kirk Douglas, a fast gun for hire who resents Wayne -- he's the only man Douglas ever shot who didn't die. Wayne, however, reaches Douglas before Cabot's men do (one of whom is Bruce Dern), and wins him over by promising lots and lots of money.
They also recruit Indian Howard Keel, cranky old Keenan Wynn (their inside man: he works for Cabot) and explosives expert Robert Walker, Jr., who has an unfortunate tendency to be a loud-mouthed drunk. He also causes some internal friction when he begins falling for Joanna Barnes, Wynn's much younger wife.
The movie gallops along at a good clip for most of its length, although after Wayne rounds up all of his team, there's a certain feeling that they're just marking time until the scheme can be put into action. Meanwhile, Wayne has a confrontation or two with Cabot, who gets suspicious and mounts a Gatling gun atop the War Wagon. The ending is a little jumbled -- we're robbed of the expected showdown between Wayne and Cabot -- and owes more than a little to TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.
Wayne plays his usual character -- tough, laconic, big and sure of himself. Nobody ever played this type of guy with more conviction and authority; watching him in a movie like this makes you realize once again that no one -- absolutely no one at all -- can walk in John Wayne's boots. He was genuinely irreplaceable, a one of a kind screen icon whose loss is still felt.
Kirk Douglas, on the other hand, has a new movie (DIAMONDS) in theaters right now, even though he suffered a stroke a few years ago. He's one of the great movie stars, with his forceful personality, handsome face, dimpled chin and sense of humor. Again, there's no one else quite like Kirk Douglas; he's had a very wide range of roles, particularly for a Movie Star, but his own strong individuality always comes through. He's a lot of fun as the womanizing, dandified quick draw here, and makes such a good match with Wayne that it's too bad they never did another film as costars. (Wayne evidently became annoyed with Douglas during the production.) He always liked showing off his body; it's irksome that the telecine operator clipped off the shot of Kirk's bare butt that amused audiences in 1967.
The supporting cast has a lot of the usual names -- Bruce Cabot, Bruce Dern, Gene Evans -- and the unexpected Howard Keel. The great baritone was not really able to hold onto his stardom after musicals disappeared, but he was a solid, amusing actor, and though his role isn't well written, he makes the most of it.
THE WAR WAGON is a good, old-fashioned Western (complete with a Dimitri Tiomkin title song, sung by Ed Ames). It's not at the top of the Wayne stack of movies, but it's entertaining and handsomely photographed by William H. Clothier on Durango, Mexico locations. The DVD, fortunately, is letterboxed.