Sunday, September 27, 2015

The War Wagon (1967)

Despite being a big John Wayne fan, and a bigger Kirk Douglas fan, this is a film I'd only seen once, back in high school.  I barely remembered anything about it, but a friend recently reminded me of it by quoting the famous line and rejoinder:

"Mine hit the ground first."
"Mine was taller."

And that put me in the mood to revisit this film.  I had to watch it twice, only because I didn't particularly like it on my first viewing, and so I wanted to see it a second time, see if it improved.  It did.

The war wagon of the film's title is a specially armored coach, completely with gatling gun and thirty guards, that ferries large quantities of gold between town and the railhead.   John Wayne recruits a few people to stop and rob that wagon.  That's essentially the plot.

The best parts of this movie for me are the cast, the snappy dialogue, and the Durango, Mexico scenery.  I'm not fond of the plot, but that's only a matter of personal taste.  Sure, there's a thirty-second exposition bit about how John Wayne's character, Taw Jackson (worst name ever), was framed and sent to jail so the bad guy, a smarmy Bruce Cabot as Pierce, could steal his ranch and the gold mine on his land, but watching Wayne on the wrong side of the law just doesn't sit well.  It also makes the movie both a wee bit of a revenge tale and a heist tale... neither of which I'm fond of.  (Clarification: I'm very fond of revenge tales when someone's avenging murdered family members, etc., but when wronged parties go after the person who wronged them, and it's solely about self, it never quite works for me... move on, already!)  And heist movies, with all their careful timing and experts in various fields working together against high odds to steal a lot of whatever... it's just not my thing.  So, plotwise... this movie does not push my buttons.

But then there's the cast, and they almost make up for it.  John Wayne is his normal solid self, wearing a famous outfit that I had on a poster.  Never knew what movie that poster's pic was from!  Now I do. :-D  He's great in this movie and his dialogue is perfect John Wayne dialogue.  His character is highly entertaining, despite the lousy name.

Howard Keel shows up as Levi Walking Bear, and he amuses me no end in the role, particularly his entrance, all tied up and being shot at for getting caught cheating at poker (which he feels is perfectly justified). Cracks me up.  He gets some very funny lines as well.

Robert Walker Jr. is around as their drunk explosives expert, and his presence always makes me uneasy. I'm so used to him playing psycho characters that I have the hardest time trusting him.  I keep expecting him to go off the deep end at any moment.  Poor guy!  Talk about being typecast.  And he's fine in this role too, as a non-pyscho, which is why the second viewing helped.  I could stop worrying about him flipping out.

Bonus points for Emilio Fernandez, who has a small part as bandit leader, Calita, and who I instantly recognized from The Wild Bunch, where he plays corrupt General Mapache.

But the main thing I like about this movie is Kirk Douglas.

He plays gunfighter Lomax, who has some unpleasant history with Jackson, but they put that aside for the sake of stealing all that gold.  He is sassy, smirky, confident, and all tons of smooth, physical grace.  Seriously, I could watch this movie just to watch him leap across other horses to mount his own, or climb cliff faces, or generally show  off his high level of fitness.  I also just really enjoy his interactions with Wayne.  The two actors play very well off each other, and they get the best dialogue.

Favorite moments:
  • Jackson and Lomax's rescue of Levi.  
  • The spectacular barroom brawl, cuz barroom brawls in Westerns never get old, and this one is a doozy.  I love Jackson's "Oh no!" as he gets jumped by multiple cowboys at once, and I love Lomax leaning against the bar watching the whole thing.
  • Nitro glycerin, because TNT is great fun, but nitro is just plain cool.  Watching everyone get jumpy around it makes me grin.
  • Any time Kirk Douglas gets up or down off his horse.
It's not a movie I need to own, but after the second viewing made me appreciate it more, I definitely won't be waiting another thirty years before I see it again.


  1. Now, that's funny—I remember Wayne's dismayed "Oh, no!" from the fight, but for some reason I thought it was in the mudslide brawl in McClintock. I haven't seen either in years, so I must have just gotten them mixed up...

    1. Hee! I can see confusing those... they're both big brawls! But I also haven't seen McClinktock in a few years, so it is entirely possible the same thing might happen there too...

  2. HOWARD KEEL IN A FLIPPIN' WESTERN?!?! Aw, heck yes! ;D

    Anywho. Good review:P

    1. Hee. Yes. He's very cool and funny in it.

    2. I just recently watched this for the first time, and I really, really liked it:D The DIALOGUE, though!

      Haha, I know, the "Oh no!" And his facial expression ;)

      I'll admit, I don't really like Kirk Douglas' character *ahem*, but he was certainly enjoyable. I really liked the relationship between the younger, drunk guy, and that one girl. That was sweet :D

  3. This is one we watched a ton when I was young. When we would someone mount or dismount in an unusual way in another western, we'd say, "Lomax!" We still quote some lines from it, especially Lomax's "I sleep on my ring every night like this." Cracks me up.

    And for years and years, I didn't realize that Howard Keel played Levi Walking Bear. I still have trouble believing it sometimes. Really? Howard Keel? ::Shakes head::

    1. That's cool that you watched this one a lot. It missed our family completely, except for that one rental.

      That's quite funny that you didn't know HK was in it for a long time.

  4. BTW, I tagged you here. Play if you want to :-)