The War Wagon.
Fresh out of jail after serving a three-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit, former rancher Taw Jackson (John Wayne) heads home with revenge on his mind. Framed by a local businessman and landowner, Pierce (Bruce Cabot), Jackson wants to exact revenge where it hurts most...Pierce's gold mine. The attempt would seem suicidal though, Pierce paying for an armor-plated wagon outfitted with a Gatling gun and guarded by 33 outriders that transports the gold from the mine to the train station that would prove to be a major deterrent to any would-be robbers. Jackson isn't about to give up though, but he does need some help, including an unlikely partnership with a hired gun named Lomax (Kirk Douglas) with whom he's had a deadly rivalry in the past and has the bullet wounds to prove it. With a small team of fellow crooks, Taw puts his plan into action to rob the armor-plated wagon, the War Wagon. But just how in hell is he going to pull this off successfully without getting shot full of holes?
This is a movie that's just hard not to like. It was a staple on AMC and TNT growing up so I saw it many times, and it's one I always look forward to revisiting every so often. This last time, well, it had been quite awhile. From tough guy director (and a Wayne favorite) Burt Kennedy, 'War' is one of those perfectly straightforward westerns with no pretensions about the changing times or a revisionist view. It's F-U-N, plain and simple, mixing so effortlessly that western setting with a heist story. Put a crew together, give them a crazy, no way in hell this works mission, and let things fall where they may. Not the best, but one of the most purely entertaining westerns to come out of the decade.
So John Wayne and...Kirk Douglas. Please and THANK YOU. The duo had worked previously together in 1965's In Harm's Way and 1966's Cast a Giant Shadow, but this is the best pairing because it just lets these two pros go to work. Yeah, the heist is fun throughout, but you watch this movie for any and all scenes between Wayne and Douglas. The dialogue crackles between them, a rivalry that treads that fine line between joking and deadly serious. There's some genuine menace in the chemistry, but you just sit back and watch things develop. The best part? They're clearly having a blast. An underrated comedic actor to begin with, Wayne gets to show off his funny chops with some great line deliveries, and Douglas is the perfect foil as Lomax, a hired gun who's a bit of a dandy but takes his job supremely seriously, especially with so much potential money on the line. You couldn't ask for a better star duo to lead the adventure film.
Any good heist needs a good heist team so who to look out for? Certainly a motley crew of crooks, including the very white Howard Keel as Levi Walking Bear, Keenan Wynn as Wes, an employee of Pierce's, and Robert Walker Jr. as Billy, an explosives expert with a drinking problem. A Wayne friend and favorite, Cabot looks to be having a ball as Pierce, the sneering, menacing crook with a whole bunch of power. Also cool to see background player Don Collier get a more visible part as Pierce's right-hand man. Also look for Joanna Barnes, Valora Noland, Bruce Dern, Chuck Roberson (Wayne's stunt double), Emilio Fernandez, and Gene Evans rounding out the cast.
'Wagon' has a lot of little things going for it that combined make for a significantly better flick. Durango, Mexico was one of Wayne's favorite filming locations including Sons of Katie Elder, The Train Robbers, Chisum and here with 'Wagon.' The Mexican mountains and wilderness provide an intimidating, authentic backdrop to the story. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is a gem, big and booming, perfect for an adventure story and one that instantly screams 'Oh, yeah, that's Tiomkin music.' Lastly, an oh so perfectly bad theme song that you can listen to HERE. It's awful, but my goodness, is it ever catchy. I defy you to watch the movie and not to be humming along to the theme days later.
But, ah yes, the heist. There's hints along the way of what Taw, Lomax and Co. are up to, but nothing too specific. So like the best heist movies, as the caper develops, we're in the dark to the exact details, all of that adding a sense of mystery to the proceedings. Nothing too crazy here other than a matter of split-second timing, some dumb luck, and one rather prominent plot hole if you ask me. But there's no point in ripping it to pieces too hard. This is a movie that's meant to be a hell of a lot of fun, and it succeeds throughout on that premise. Wayne and Douglas are pitch perfect together and look to be having a ball.
Sit back, enjoy and let that fun take over from there.
The War Wagon (1967): ***/****
Rewrite of February 2009 review