Directed by Burt Kennedy
Produced by Marvin Schwartz
Screenplay by Clair Huffaker
Based on the novel “Badmen” by Clair Huffaker
THE WAR WAGON combines two of my favorite genres into one rip-snorting package: The Western and The Heist. I absolutely love a good horse opera and many of my favorite movies are westerns that I can watch over and over again. And I love a good heist movie. I enjoy the hell outta seeing a bunch of expert thieves steal something that everybody says can’t be stolen. Maybe it’s because most thieves are so inept in real life and never seem to be able to pull off their heists with the aplomb and style movie thieves do.
THE WAR WAGON can be classified as the western version of an armored car heist. The title vehicle is an armored fortress on wheels protected by a Gatling gun and 32 heavily armed riders on horseback. The entire convoy gallops along at full speed from start to finish. Nobody has ever successfully been able to rob The War Wagon and its owner is about to transport the largest shipment of gold The War Wagon has ever carried: a half million dollars.
Taw Jackson (John Wayne) has a carefully put together plan to rob The War Wagon and the way he sees it, he’s got a right to the gold. After all, it came off his land that was stolen from him by Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot). Pierce had Taw framed for murder and sent to prison and in the years that Taw has been incarcerated, Pierce has been stripping Taw’s land of the gold. Taw assembles a motley crew to help him take The War Wagon: Lomax (Kirk Douglas), a gunslinger for hire who once almost killed Taw. Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel), an Indian fully assimilated into the ways of the white man who talks a Kiowa tribe into joining the heist. Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker) is an uncontrollable drunk until it comes time for him to handle explosives and then he’s as calm and centered as Sunday morning. Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn) works for Pierce. His inside knowledge of The War Wagon’s schedule and Pierce’s organization is vital to the success of the heist.
The plan gets complicated when Pierce contacts Lomax and offers him $12,000 dollars to kill Taw once and for all. Taw has also got to keep Billy Hyatt away from not only the firewater but Wes Fletcher’s extremely pretty young wife who shows just as much of a liking for Billy as he has for her.
One thing you notice about THE WAR WAGON that is different from other roles John Wayne has played: usually in a movie like this, whenever the hero comes back looking for revenge for wrongs done to him, he can usually find a few townspeople willing to help him out. Not here. In fact, when Wayne’s character returns to town, it’s almost as if the townspeople act like Taw Jackson deserved what happened to him. Taw doesn’t have a friend to back him up and indeed, he spends a lot of this movie looking over his shoulder to make sure that Lomax doesn’t try to collect the sure $12,000 bucks as opposed to a share of the half million.
There’s really no point in reviewing John Wayne’s performance in a Western is there? No other American actor looked so comfortable sitting in a saddle as Wayne or so at home in the film genre that made him a legend. John Wayne never looks right when he acts in a contemporary movie, such as his Dirty Harry-ish cop movies “McQ” and “Brannigan” and indeed, he looks seriously out of place. Not so here. Wayne’s right at home on the range where he belongs. Kirk Douglas is equally Wayne’s match as the flamboyant gunslinger Lomax and Kirk Douglas is probably the only man who can look tough while wearing a tight leather shirt. They have some nice sarcastic dialog between them such as the scene where they simultaneously shoot two men. Douglas says: “Mine hit the ground first.” Wayne replies without missing a beat, “Mine was taller.”
If the movie has any major faults is that there’s no really memorable villain here. Bruce Cabot’s Pierce is a little more than a glorified bookkeeper with a mean streak. He’s always sneering at Wayne while hiding behind a wall of flunkies and hired guns. The movie’s all about the heisting of the gold and that’s it. But it’s an enjoyable heist with loads of action and with interesting supporting roles from some familiar faces. Look for Bruce Dern early in the movie and Gene Evans (who starred in Sam Fuller’s classic war film: “The Steel Helmet”) is in this one as well. THE WAR WAGON isn’t on the level of other Wayne westerns such as “Rio Bravo” “El Dorado” “The Shootist” or “True Grit” bu it is good watching if you’re into westerns or heist movies. But I’ll tell you what…just check out the opening credits and the absolutely kickass theme song with Ed Ames lustily belting out “The Ballad of The War Wagon” and then tell me you don’t wanna see the rest of the movie.