Friday 16 September 2011

Movie Review: The War Wagon (1967)

A tongue-in-cheek western with a streak of dry humour, The War Wagon allows two screen veterans to have fun without totally abandoning the pillars of the genre. The movie has plenty of horses, gun-play, bare-knuckle fist fights, and Indians, but scrubs-off any edge of seriousness and replaces it with a wink and a smile.

Crooked but powerful businessman Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) has taken over the ranch of Taw Jackson (John Wayne), kicking Jackson off his land by framing him for a crime and consigning him to a jail sentence. Pierce seized control of Jackson's land after discovering that the ranch sits on gold deposits. Now he is growing richer mining the gold and transferring his treasure and money to and from the rail station in an impressively armoured wagon, protected by more than 30 men on horseback. A turret-mounted Gatling gun is the latest enhancement to ward off attacks on the War Wagon.

Released on parole, Jackson is back in town and looking to reclaim what is his. Rightfully predicting the worst, Pierce tries to hire ace gunman Lomax (Kirk Douglas) to kill Jackson. But Jackson gets to Lomax first, and recruits him to help execute a daring heist of the War Wagon. Assisted by the Indian Levi (Howard Keel), the perpetually drunk explosives expert Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker Jr.), and inside-man and old geezer Catlin (Keenan Wynn), Jackson and Lomax hatch a plan to destroy the War Wagon and take off with a large supply of gold.

Lomax and Jackson simultaneously shoot and kill two bad guys:

Lomax: Mine hit the ground first.
Jackson: Mine was taller.

In a traditional yet brisk outing easily packing genre fundamentals, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas ride through The War Wagon with the effortlessness of grizzled old-timers who have seen it all and done it all multiple times, trading barbs, planning their robbery, and guarding against each other with obvious delight. Director Burt Kennedy fully realizes his two stars are much bigger than the routine story, and provides Wayne and Douglas with every opportunity to dominate the screen, which they do with understated relish. Kennedy also makes good use of Monument Valley scenery to polish the classic western credentials of the movie.

The supporting cast features a host of Western veterans shooting their guns straight and earnestly reciting their lines to counterbalance the levity of the two stars. There is also a brief but memorable appearance by Bruce Dern: he is one of the two bad guys who are shot to prompt the classic "mine was taller" exchange of dialogue.

The portrayal of Indians is generally unenlightened, even for 1967, although they do emerge as beneficiaries of the sting in the tale. Clair Huffaker's script otherwise features an epic everyone-against-anyone saloon fist-fight, and misadventures with nitroglycerin, a welcome departure from the standard over-dependence on dynamite in most Westerns.

The War Wagon is an entertaining farewell wave to a genre that was otherwise fast galloping towards the canyon's dead-end.

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