Random Film of the Week: The War Wagon

(thanks, captbijou!) 

The War Wagon_MPFrom the moment Dimitri Tiomkin’s bouncy western theme music kicks things off and “The Ballad of The War Wagon” plays out with its bouncier western lyrics (sing along, now!), you just KNOW you’re in for a good time. Directed by Burt Kennedy (Return of the Seven, Support Your Local Sheriff), this 1967 western paired John Wayne and Kirk Douglas as a pair of adversaries who team up to take down the titular gold-loaded, four-wheeled, well-armored horse-drawn vehicle (say that five times fast!) with the help of some friends is light and airy fun for an afternoon that’s worth a watch even if you don’t like westerns at all.

If your eyebrow is arching up a bit, fear not pardner! Just think of this gem as a variation on The Adventures of Robin Hood or a more modern heist flick with some of your favorite stars and that’s all you need to know to know you’ll come away from this one grinning. In fact, this is one of those films that works brilliantly because it’s supposed to be funny while also delivering plenty of action and dramatic moments to please genre fans…

Wayne and Douglas has been paired in two other films (1965’s war epic In Harm’s Way and the biopic/action flick Cast a Giant Shadow) , but here, they’re pure gold as they play off of each other and look as if they’re having a blast doing it. In a nifty bit of casting, Wayne plays an “outlaw” type in that his Taw Jackson was unfairly jailed for three years and that doesn’t play well among some in the small town he’s now back and out for some payback. It’s nice to see The Duke as a sort of “black hat” here, but it’s not that odd, as even back in 1939’s Stagecoach, he played a character seen by some to be at odds with the law. Still, he’s more known for his gun(g) heroics on the side of good to some in way too many movies to count and I don’t think he played an out and out thief (with a catch that makes sense plot-wise).

That gold happens to belong to one Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) the man who framed him and had him put away in order to get to the gold deposit found on Jackson’s land. Douglas plays Lomax, the booze and babe-loving gunslinger and safe cracker who just so happened to help catch Taw three years back. Let’s say the two men don’t get along well when they have their reunion, but things patch up nicely when that gold enters the picture. You could say that in a way, Jackson is going after what’s owed him, but he’s going to have to round up a few more people in order to get his gold from that heavily armored battle cart.

“Look at those horses, what are they draggin’?
Heavily guarded, what is that wagon?)
War Wagon, what is it for?
War Wagon, loaded with gold”

And yes, while that War Wagon is indeed a formidable metal-clad wheeled beast with a gatling gun turret that makes it hard to attack, it does have a major weakness or two to exploit. Jacskon and Lomax figure out a way to take on the thing and the men in it in a clever manner that’s kind of predictable, but still fun to see unfold. In fact, getting the gold isn’t actually the hardest thing the men do at all… it’s what happens after they make that score that’s the twist. Here, there’s a probable nod to other robbery flicks where things go as planned to a point, but I’ll let you see this one and find out for yourself.

The casting here and performances are rock solid with everyone diving into their roles with relish. Keenan Wynn’s Wes Fletcher makes for a REALLY cranky partner in crime, jealously over-guarding his too pretty younger wife (Valora Noland) against any advances. Howard Keel draws the Indian card here, playing Levi Walking Bear as a willing partner with a secret you may see coming a mile away (but it doesn’t spoil the film one bit). All the bad guys in and around the Wagon are just what you’d expect, but the film throws a few curve balls at you by killing off some characters in a few surprising, sudden ways. To me, one of the demises is actually funny because it relieves another character of a burden and it’s clear that it’s appreciated afterwards.

Despite the gunplay and occasional violence (in that bloodless manner the bulk of westerns did so well back then), the snappy dialog, Kirk Douglas doing his own stunts and the overall tone of the film help make this one a big favorite from a year packed with too many great movies of all types. It’s certainly a great counterpoint to the darker westerns being made around that time and the ones to come a year or so later, so it’s also great to watch and compare tonal and thematic elements in the Western as the decade changed film on a number of levels across all genres.

Hey! if you’re reading this, you should know that this post is part of the 1967 in Film Blogathon held over at Silver Screenings! It’s running from May 20-22, so make sure you click away on those links and get your reading on as quite a bunch of fine writers are whipping out content on this great year for films around the world…

23 thoughts on “Random Film of the Week: The War Wagon

  1. Pingback: Random Film of the Week: The War Wagon | Tinseltown Times

  2. Pingback: Update: 1967 in Film Blogathon | Silver Screenings

  3. I greatly enjoyed your write-up! I’ve never seen this film, but I’ve heard of it — in fact, when I visited Universal Studios as a child, I took a picture next to the wagon from the movie! (Or some kind of prop from the movie, LOL) Anyway, you certainly make me want to see it — and I’m one of those people who doesn’t really care for westerns. I will be looking for it!

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    • Oh, it’s a real treat. I’m not a huge western fan either, but I do love many of the classics and a few of the more modern ones. This one’s fun because it doesn’t have a dull moment and it’s over before it wears out its welcome. And amusingly enough, you’re the third person I’ve heard of that got a picture with that prop as a child, so now you HAVE to see the movie. Thanks for your comment!

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  4. Pingback: The 1967 in Film Blogathon: Day #1 | The Rosebud Cinema

  5. I really like this movie too, here’s a word I’ve never used before but it’s Rollicking! you can’t go wrong with Kirk anything and he really works well with the Duke. nice pick

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    • Yeah, usually “rollicking” and “western” doesn’t work unless it’s The Apple Dumpling Gang (eek!) or Blazing Saddles, but the word fits this film as well. I’ve had that main theme song bouncing around in my head this week thanks to watching it again with a friend who’d never seen it and had a blast.

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  6. I bet it’s been FIVE YEARS since I’ve seen this film, which means it’s overdue to be seen again.

    Love the Kirk Douglas and John Wayne pairing. I always thought Kirk Douglas had a remarkable ability to have good “man” chemistry with his co-stars.

    Great review! So glad you chose a Western for the blogathon.

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    • It’s a “bromance” film for sure (I do hate that “word”, but it’s how I got some friends to watch this a few weeks back and they loved it). I’ve seen some modern “remakes” or films inspired by bits and pieces of this, but you have to go with this one because everything clicks right away.

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  7. You capture the lightheartedness of this film. In truth, I did not care for it too much but that said it’s been years since I watched it and may have to give it another try.

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    • Oh, Howard doesn’t get enough love for his character acting, but yep, he’s a “Kee” to this one as well. I keep meaning to do up a post on my favorite character actors, but I get caught up in other stuff and when I start watching movies I need to, I get sidetracked by other actors and actresses I see and say “Hey, she/he needs some love too!” I just need someone to slap me and say FOCUS! in one ear. But that would probably be too distracting and I’d be deaf in one ear with half a red face. Ouch.

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  8. How did you know my eyebrow was arching? Westerns aren’t really my thing but I’m slowly realising I’m missing out on a LOT of fun: this one sounds especially lighthearted, and WHAT a cast. I’ll add it to the ‘to see’ list!

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    • This one’s a great “entry level” western because it’s not so serious at all (well, other than a few people getting shot… but it’s a western!) and everyone seems to have had a fine time making it. You’ll want to grab a friend or two, of course. Thanks for stopping by! πŸ˜€

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  9. This is a snappy and fun Wayne western with a cool central gimmick. Wayne always works best when partnered with someone of equal star wattage and he and Douglas are a perfect mix here. I love that bit where the two blow away a couple of bad guys (played by Bruce Dern and Chuck Roberson), and the competitive nature of their relationship is first established. Douglas: “My hit the ground first.” Duke: “Mine was taller.”

    Great post!

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    • Oh, the dialog here is priceless. I love it when Jackson gets his gun back from the guy who stole it. “The shells in here belong to him. You tell him he can come and get ’em… ANY time!” Yeah, that one gets me cracking up whenever I’ve seen this flick. Thanks for dropping by!

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  10. Pingback: Announcing the “1967 in Film” Blogathon | Silver Screenings

  11. Westerns are one of the few genres that I’ve never really made an effort to watch but you’ve convinced me to watch this one! It was a great idea to write about this for the blogathon and thanks for participating!

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    • Oh, you’re welcome! Thanks for hosting this! TWW is a fun “Goldilocks” film because it’s “just right” in its mix of comedic, dramatic and action bits. You get all those actors having fun and tossing their lines around, a bit of gunplay and lots of thrills, then an ending that’s fitting and somewhat amusing to wrap it all up. I’m actually surprised this didn’t get a sequel, but I’d gather Wayne and Douglas weren’t available and no one thought about having them do another. On the other hand, that’s a good thing, as it would need to be a REALLY different story and setting to make it work (at least in my mind)… πŸ˜€

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    • Thanks much for your comment! I’m behind on my reading with this blogathon thanks to SO many great posts, but yours is queued up for later tonight or tomorrow. I haven’t seen Dr. Doolittle in quite some time (at least 20 years!), so this should be a fun read. πŸ˜€

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