Taw Jackson returns from prison having survived being shot, to the ranch and gold that Frank Pierce stole from him. Jackson makes a deal with Lomax, the man who shot him 5 years ago to join forces against Pierce and steal a large gold shipment. The shipments are transported in the War Wagon, an armored stage coach that is heavily guarded. The two of them become the key players in the caper to separate Pierce from Jackson's gold.
John Wayne ... Taw Jackson
Kirk Douglas ... Lomax
Howard Keel ... Levi Walking Bear
Robert Walker Jr. ... Billy Hyatt (as Robert Walker)
Keenan Wynn ... Wes Fletcher
Bruce Cabot ... Frank Pierce
Joanna Barnes ... Lola
Valora Noland ... Kate Fletcher
Bruce Dern ... Hammond
Gene Evans ... Hoag
Terry Wilson ... Sheriff Strike
Don Collier ... Shack
Sheb Wooley ... Snyder
Ann McCrea ... Felicia
I believe you would have to say that this is the first time John Wayne was not on the side of law and order in a movie since Three Godfathers. Between then and The War Wagon, a past that is less than savory has been hinted at, but only in The War Wagon has it been explicitly said he's an outlaw.
An outlaw with revenge on his mind. He's going rob Bruce Cabot, the slimy villain who's taken over his ranch and discovered enough gold on it to make him a rich man.
This is a caper film, maybe the only one Duke ever made. Though it might not come to mind, this film is definitely in the tradition of Topkapi and How to Steal a Million. Granted the comedy isn't exactly highbrow like the other two films, still the War Wagon is an honorable addition to that genre.
Helping Wayne along in his enterprise are Kirk Douglas a gunfighter/ safe-cracker, Howard Keel a cynical Indian, Robert Walker, Jr. a young alcoholic explosives expert and Keenan Wynn an old codger who works for Bruce Cabot and is essentially their inside man.
Kirk Douglas in his memoirs The Ragman's Son held the Duke in enormous respect even though their political views differed radically. The three films they did together show the good camaraderie they developed.
The title of the film refers to an armored vehicle with a Gatling gun that Bruce Cabot uses to ship gold. I won't say what the plan is on how the War Wagon is dealt with, but anyone who has watched the George Marshall/Glenn Ford film, Imitation General, will have some idea.
A good entertaining John Wayne western which is as good as it gets.
As far as westerns go I really can't think of many that John Wayne has failed at. The only way to rate a John Wayne movie is to compare it with other John Wayne movies. In do so I would give The War Wagon a firm 5 stars.
In The War Wagon you will find some humor, drama, deceit, love and adventure. You will see John Wayne (Taw Jackson) put together a rag tag group of hold up men that you will think couldn't complete a game of checkers without killing each other. In a period of only 4 days this group plans to pull a robbery of $500,000.00. The target - a modified stagecoach built of iron, 47 feet long counting the horses, called "The War Wagon". A great John Wayne movie suitable for the whole family
I didn't like the "War Wagon" when it was first released, I found it rather silly and vaguely offensive. The problem was me, I was not ready to recognize, let alone relate to, a subtle parody of the western genre. I should have been more receptive because in the mid-60s a huge amount of genre parody began to appear on television ("Batman", 'Wild Wild West", "F- Troop", "Get Smart"), which could be traced back to gently tongue-in-cheek series like "Maverick" and "Zorro".
"Cat Ballou" (1965) was the first feature length parody of Western generic clichés. But its parody elements were obvious, even if you were not that familiar with the conventions of the Western genre you could recognize exaggerations and revisions. In addition, up to this point John Wayne films had given the Western genre only very traditional treatments.
But "The War Wagon" was only the first example of director Burt Kennedy's tweaking of the genre. He would follow it up with "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969), "Hannie Caulder" (1971), and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" (1971). Wayne would toy with parodic elements two years later with "True Grit", and would stay much less traditional with the remainder of his westerns.
"The War Wagon" is also a genre hybrid as western is mixed with buddy picture and big heist movie. Taw (John Wayne) recruits an old enemy Lomax (Kirk Douglas) as he seeks revenge on a ruthless mine owner (Bruce Cabot) who not only framed and sent to him prison, but appropriated his ranch and personal possessions after a huge gold strike was discovered on ranch property (here we go with the exaggeration-the only things missing are stealing Taw's wife, adopting his children, and leaving his toilet seat up). Cabot transports his gold in a "Wild Wild West" inspired armored wagon.
The interplay between Wayne and Douglas (who always seems right on the verge of accepting Cabot's standing offer of $12,000 to kill Wayne) is clever and sarcastic, working with the many exaggerated elements to provide the film's considerable humor.
"The War Wagon" finds Wayne on the wrong side of established authority, for at least the third time as his Ethan Edwards character in "The Searchers" also operated well outside the law and Quirt Evans in "Angel and the Badman" had to be bad enough that he could be reformed by Gail Russell.
Howard Keel plays the civilized Indian sidekick mostly for comic relief and the characters actually demonstrate an awareness of the movie context when they self-reflexively (deliberately drawing attention to their playing characters in a movie) refer to a tactic as an old Indian trick. Ultimately the joke (and the irony) is on Wayne and Douglas, as their seemingly one-sided deal with the Indians (a few blankets in exchange for their participation) causes the Indians to end up with most the rewards.
"The War Wagon's" understated parody style would inspire John Huston ("The Life & Times Of Judge Roy Bean") and George Roy Hill ("The Sting"); and of course many others.
* As Lomax is riding into Chabisco, the music coming from the saloon is an instrumental version of "The Ballad of the War Wagon."
* During the production, Kirk Douglas was late to the set because he was shooting a commercial endorsement for the Democratic Governor of California, Edmund G. Brown. John Wayne was furious, and was late to work the next day because he was shooting a commercial for the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan.
* According to director Burt Kennedy, he gave up half his salary so that he could afford to hire Kirk Douglas (quoted in the Production Notes on the Universal Western Collection DVD).
* The "War Wagon" itself was built mostly of plywood and other lightweight materials, and painted to look like iron (appropriate "metallic" sound effects-such as when the "heavy" iron doors are opened and closed, etc.) were added to complete the illusion. For many years, at least through the 1980's, the deteriorating remains of "The War Wagon" were displayed in "The Boneyard" (a collection of old outdoor movie props) as part of the Universal Studios Backlot Tour in California.
* Average Shot Length and Median Shot Length = ~5.8 seconds.
* According to the production notes on the 2003 DVD release, Keenan Wynn's battered hat that he wears in the picture was Leslie Howard's Confederate cavalry hat from Gone With the Wind which Wynn purloined from MGM. Wynn first wore the hat in a 1942 MGM screen test and "wore it in every picture he made".
* According to John Wayne, the fight in the saloon was his 500th on-screen fight.