The venerable Hollywood western; a main staple in America’s own mythology – tall tales dedicated to the deification of the white man’s triumph against the elements, the odds and the Indians (not necessarily in that order), bringing ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ to these wide open spaces. Well…so the legend goes. Like most legends, this one ought to be taken with a grain of salt – in some cases, a whole box full. Yet, there’s no denying the genuine love audiences have had for these rough and tumble, highly romanticized landscapes of tumbleweed and sagebrush. No other genre has been as prolific; its permutations from B-grade Saturday matinee kiddie fodder in the late 1920’s to mid-1930’s, then bona fide A-list action/melodrama, acquiring something of a social conscience by the late 1950’s, turning near slapstick in the mid-1960’s, before a renaissance of sorts – reborn as bloodier/grittier anecdotes told by ‘the man with no name’ (you know who) or Sam Peckinpah; to say nothing of its proliferation on the small screen. How many of us played at ‘cowboys and Indians’ then, or can still recall that haunted, sundrenched imagery of Death Valley, most memorably eulogized by director John Ford?
Undeniably, one figure towers over the rest: John Wayne. By the time Wayne appeared in director Burt Kennedy’s The War Wagon (1967) he had already transcended the iconography of the traditional western hero to become a legend ensconced in his own time. Duke Wayne – with his inimitable gait and direct address, already begun to adopt an occasionally more profound world-weariness by the time he made this picture; Wayne was as beloved by his fans – if steadily vilified by the increasingly more proactive leftist pundits, who chose to perceive his brand of heroism as variations on a theme indicative of America’s war mongering in Vietnam. Rubbish! Wayne’s unstoppable career and charisma defied these changing times and tastes. He is more galvanized and with us today than perhaps even in his own lifetime. In 1967, it still seemed John Wayne, like the western hero he so typified, would go on forever – his visage slightly altered by age, yet somehow almost a timeless reflection of the natural landscape’s cragginess and angular unconformity. Only in retrospect, do the variances and nuances in Wayne’s body of work become more apparent.
The War Wagon is representative of that John Wayne iconography once more in transition - from serious action hero to éminence grise with a light touch of the comedian. However, as scripted by Clair Huffaker (based on his novel), the film also brands Wayne – at least ‘technically’ as the ‘bad guy’ – though hardly, the villain. It seems Wayne’s Taw Jackson is newly paroled after serving three years for armed robbery. But even Jackson’s crime pales in comparison to the unscrupulous activities of Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) who owns the local mining company and thus has enough cash and clout to keep the law in his pocket. Since Taw’s incarceration, Pierce has appropriated his ranch. He is also rumored to have actually stolen the land where his mining fortunes since have been made. Taw’s return is therefore something of a problem for Pierce. But not to worry…at least, not yet. Pierce has built an armored car to haul his gold dust to the bank, mounted with a powerful gatling gun and flanked by a formidable armed posse on horseback. The war wagon is therefore impregnable…or so it would seem. Taw, however, is a very determined man and, as devotees of John Wayne’s work, we already know how this one will turn out.
The War Wagon also prominently features Kirk Douglas in a co-starring role as the notorious gunslinger/safe-cracker – Lomax. Douglas is arguably at the top of his game herein; slightly overshadowed by Wayne, but still managing to hold his own. In retrospect, Douglas’ career is the more varied, if not the more prolific. Appearing in everything from dark noir to melodrama, to action/adventure and biopics, Douglas’ presence in The War Wagon adds considerable cache and credence to, what is essentially, a fairly pedestrian and nauseatingly predictable western yarn. The movie’s roster is further fattened with Howard Keel (miscast in dark pancake makeup and braided jet-black pigtails as native, Levi Walking Bear), Robert Walker Jr. (uncannily looking like his late father, and fairly convincing as the young drunkard/demolitions expert, Billy Hyatt), Joanna Barnes (briefly glimpsed as the saloon hostess, Lola) and Keenan Wynn (somewhat awkward, as the curmudgeonly prospector-type, Wes Fletcher). All of the aforementioned, except Lola, are in on Taw’s plan to hijack the war wagon during one of its routine journeys from the mine into town to deposit Pierce’s gold. Regrettably, none trust the others involved in this ambitious plot.
Taw seems to think amassing a solid crew of reprobates is all he needs to make his plan stick. But even before he can get underway, Lomax is entertaining Pierce’s option to hire him to assassinate Taw under the pretext of a spontaneous gunfight for a $12,000 reward. In the meantime, Billy’s alcoholism is getting the better of him. He nearly blows Taw’s plans, stumbling into the saloon and flapping his gums to the bartender (Frank McGrath) in Pierce’s presence about a ‘plan’ soon to make him fiscally solvent, thus allowing him to pay for his own drinks. And then there is Levi Walking Bear – who openly admits to Taw he is playing ‘the white man’s game’ - ‘take all you can get’. Taw is at a disadvantage in his negotiations with Chief Wild Horse (Marco Antonio), using Levi as his interpreter to arrange a diversion for his heist. But is Levi really working for Taw? Or is he merely laying the groundwork for an Indian ambush destined to leave everyone dead? Finally, we come to Wes – a homesteader and a real bastard, who has claimed Kate Fletcher (Valora Noland) as his ‘wife’. Wes won Kate in a game of chance and has kept her frightened, silent and isolated ever since; the proverbial workhorse on his modest ranch.
None of the men involved in Taw’s grand plan respect each other. All are in it for the money, some fairly itching with greed to overthrow and cheat the rest out of their ill-gotten gains. Pierce kicks off the charge, suggesting Sherriff Strike (Terry Wilson) throw Taw in jail. He also sends a pair of goons, Snyder (Sheb Wooley) and Hammond (Bruce Dern) to take care of business. In short order Taw and Lomax take care of them instead. Pierce already has Deputy Hoag (Gene Evans) and his assistant, Shack (Don Collier) in his pocket; the two riding shotgun in the war wagon on its ill-fated journey. Taw, however, is determined he will once again have his ranch. When Billy suggests a plan to detonate the bridge the war wagon will cross using nitroglycerin instead of explosives, Taw takes it upon himself to invade his former home as a diversion while Lomax and Billy sneak into the nearby store shed and steal the necessary supplies. So far, things are going according to plan. Too bad its execution isn’t quite as smooth as these preliminary exchanges.
As the war wagon departs across the wilderness, Chief Wild Horse’s tribesmen create a diversion by dragging tree branches behind their horses, raising a cloud of dust to suggest their advancing war party is much larger than it actually is. The trick succeeds at momentarily distracting Pierce’s entourage. They break off from the war wagon to investigate. Next, the wagon crosses the bridge, triggering Billy’s nitroglycerin charges. The bridge is destroyed behind them, thus preventing Pierce’s posse from pursuing. Chief Wild Horse’s Kilowa descend on the war wagon. But they incur considerable casualties from the gatling gun and are forced to turn away. A short distance later, the booby-trap concocted by Lomax renders the war wagon’s top-mounted steerable turret useless. Lomax and Taw descend to the roof. Pierce is forced to shoot Shack, the Hoag for refusing to protect his loot. Hoag gets off a round before toppling from the carriage, mortally wounding Pierce. Regrettably, Taw is unable to maneuver the war wagon around a sharp bend. Instead, it topples down a ravine and overturns.
Taw and Lomax are forced to empty its safe in haste, loading Pierce’s stash of gold nuggets onto Wes and Kate’s waiting carriage. The gold is buried inside barrels, presumably carrying flour to market. Chief Wild Horse and his men arrive to prevent the heist. Levi is unable to convince them he is on their side and Wes, reaching for his rifle, is shot dead by one of Wild Horse’s tribesmen. Billy feigns needing a drink to steady his nerves, removing the last bottle of nitroglycerin from his pocket, mistaken for alcohol by one of Wild Horse’s men, who confiscates it to share with his chief. Taking a swig of this poison, Wild Horse tosses the bottle only a few inches from his tribe, thereby blowing himself up and frightening the rest away. The blast also spooks the horse pulling Wes’ carriage. Taw attempts to make chase. But only after the carriage spills all its barrels to the ground and overturns does he suddenly realize Wes had attempted to double-cross him; a sizable chunk of the stolen gold discovered safely hidden inside a secret compartment.
Taw elects not to tell Lomax about his windfall. Instead, he gives a sack of gold dust to Billy, who has decided to look after Kate; the pair departing for parts unknown. A short while later, Lomax, learning of Taw’s betrayal, bursts into the saloon demanding remuneration. Taw suggests it would be unwise to flash gold around town so early after the robbery and tells Lomax he has hidden their reserves somewhere in the dessert to be unearthed in six months’ time, informing Lomax that he would be wise to protect his investment by making sure no harm comes to him.
Thus ends The War Wagon on a vaguely comically/thoroughly ironic note. Tricked out in Alfred Sweeney’s rather lavish production design, expertly photographed by William H. Clothier in expansive Panavision, and with a rollicking score by Dimitri Tiomkin, featuring a memorable and rousing ballad sung by Ed Ames under the title credits, The War Wagon is diverting entertainment that, nevertheless, falls short of expectations. John Wayne sleepwalks his way through the part of Taw Jackson; a stock - and occasionally cardboard thin – cutout. It’s Duke Wayne we’re seeing, not the character. Taw is ‘technically’ the movie’s bad guy. But Wayne’s built-in persona and iconography make it virtually impossible to accept him as ‘the villain’ of the piece. The movie also doesn’t give Kirk Douglas much of an opportunity to flex his actor’s muscle, although we do get a beefcake moment after Taw interrupts Lomax in a romantic pas deux with Lola; Lomax strapping on his gun belt (but precious little else) to answer the front door.
There’s no getting around it. Howard Keel is embarrassingly bad as Levi Walking Bear. Is he playing it straight or doing comic relief? We’re never quite sure and neither, it seems, is Keel, who utterly mangles the part with faux incredulity and a perpetual glower. Bruce Cabot remains menacing until the final reel when his Pierce turns yellow; badly done. Keenan Wynn and Robert Walker Jr. are wasted in token cameos. Although undeniably good to look at, neither Joanna Barnes nor Valora Noland make much of a splash. Barnes gets the plum role; just a few lines loaded with double entendre and sexual innuendo. The Indians are predictably whitewashed as easily manipulated/easily corruptible.
Worse, the movie’s overall dramatic arc is inconsistently scripted. The War Wagon begins as a serious western and maintains this premise until a woefully misguided saloon brawl; fraught with the predictable destruction of virtually every prop in the room, but with a rather adolescent ‘food fight’ mentality that discounts the stunt work. The characters flip sides as readily as they jangle their spurs, though not in any way that would generate more mystery, suspense or intrigue. In the final analysis, and despite its many virtues, The War Wagon devolves into a run-of-the-mill western; not Duke’s best, though far from his worst.
There’s better news afoot in Universal’s 1080p transfer. With minimal imperfections, The War Wagon looks spectacular on Blu-ray. Colors and fine detail pop with remarkable clarity. Wow! Flesh tones appear very natural. This transfer evokes ruddy browns and oranges, verdant greens and royal blues with crystal clarity. For the most part grain has been consistently rendered. One or two instances of very mild gate weave and wobble exist – mostly during and immediately following the opening credits. Now for the bad news: The War Wagon’s DTS 2.0 mono audio leaves much to be desired; teetering from moments of remarkable clarity to exceptionally strident sounding, particularly during the penultimate exchange of dialogue between Taw and Lomax just outside of the saloon. Arguably, this remastering effort is at the mercy of the original sound mix. Even so, I cannot imagine it sounding this shrill in 1967. A theatrical trailer is the only extra. For fans of this movie, The War Wagon will not disappoint. The transfer isn’t perfect. Then again, neither is the film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)