From 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…