Sunday, October 5, 2008


 "Return of the Seven" director Burt Kennedy helmed the most imaginative John Wayne western of the 1960s with "The War Wagon." This improbable but entertaining horse opera co-starred a trim Kirk Douglas at his acrobatic best as well as Howard Keel, Bruce Cabot, and Robert Walker Jr. Novelist Claire Huffaker adapted the screenplay from his novel and remains faithful to it for the most part. Huffaker penned paperback westerns so he was no stranger to the genre. He later wrote "The Deserter," "The Valdez Horses," "100 Rifles," "The Hellfighters," "The Comancheros," and "Tarzan and the Valley of Gold." Of course, a seasoned western movie scenarist like Burt Kennedy, whose writing credits include four Randolph Scott westerns "Seven Men from Now," "The Tall T," "Comanche Station," and "Ride Lonesome," brought his sensibility to the subject matter. Kennedy has said that he lightened up Huffaker's dark script. Remember, Kennedy later helmed the classic James Garner western comedy "Support Your Local Sheriff" and its lesser sequel "Support Your Local Gunfighter."  One of the weapons that all Spaghetti westerns featured prominently was the Gatling Gun, and Kennedy makes good use of a Gatling gun.

In "The War Wagon" (***1/2 out of ****), Taw Jackson (John Wayne) rides into Emmett, New Mexico, to report to Sheriff Strike. Initially, Strike (Terry Wilson of "Westworld") is surprised by Taw's arrival and believes that he has broken out of prison. No, Taw explains that he behaved himself so well for three years that he received a pardon with the stipulation that he check in every Monday with the local authority. Deputy Hoag (Gene Evans of "Fixed Bayonets!") observes critically, "Maybe prison took some of the starch out of you." Taw leaves the jail and finds Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn of "Point Blank") stealing sugar from Pierce and forces him to put it back. Wes plans to participate in a robbery that Taw has put together. Wes is a harsh, abrasive old man that drives a supply wagon for Pierce and has a beautiful young wife, Felicia (Ann McCrea of "River of No Return"), that he bought for $20 and a horse from her poor parents. Our protagonist sets out to find a flamboyant, temperamental gunfighter named Lomax (Kirk Douglas of "Seven Days in May") because he can crack safes and he is extremely handy with a six-gun. Taw finds him easily enough, but Lomax holds a grudge against him. "You're the only man I ever shot," he snarls with venom, "didn't kill."  We learn from Lomax that Frank Pierce paid him to kill Taw Jackson. "Sure, so he (Pierce) could legally steal your land once he found gold on it. You were a hard-working rancher defending your property yet it was you who got shot, framed, and sent to jail." Taw shares his far-fetched plan with Lomax to rob Pierce. Of course, Lomax points out Pierce transports his gold dust 43 miles between Emmett and the railhead at El Paso in an iron-plated stagecoach and with plans to add a rapid-firing Gatling gun to the roof. Taw knows that they will be pitted against 28 horsemen each armed with Henry repeating rifles, two Colt .45 revolvers, and 200 rounds of ammunition. Five men including Pierce ride in the armor-plated coach. Taw explains, however, that he has assembled five men to pull the job off... Lomax will handle the gunplay and the safe cracking. Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker Jr. of "Young Bill Young") is a teenage alcoholic but an expert with explosives. Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel of "Kismet") will recruit an army of Native Americans to serve as their cavalry, while Wes Fletcher will be in charge of concealing the loot for six months after the robbery. Predictably, Lomax objects to Taw's grand scheme, despite the $100-thousand pay per man, because of the danger. Taw sweetens the pot. Pierce plans to haul a half-million dollars in gold dust in four days as soon as he installs the Gatling gun.

Meanwhile, when Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot of "King Kong") learns about Taw being in town, he summons two gunmen, Hammond (Bruce Dern of "The Cowboys") and Brown (Chuck Robertson of "McLintock!"), and orders them to find Lomax. Pierce is prepared to pay Lomax up to $10-thousand for him to kill Taw. Another example of Kennedy's sense of humor occurs when Hammond and Brown find Lomax, discover that Taw is with Lomax, and try to blast them on their own. Our heroes have no trouble killing them. "Might fell first," Lomax chides Taw. "Mine was taller," Taw retorts. Our heroes rescue Levi Walking Bear from an evil band of Mexican outlaws, steal nitroglycerin from Pierce's own supplies and set about arranging their scheme to take the war wagon. At the same time, the conspirators don't like each other. (Kennedy's gunmen in "Return of the Seven" didn't get along with each other either.) Lomax detests Billy because he doesn't trust a drunkard handling explosives and Wes hates Billy because he mistakes Felicia as Wes' daughter not his wife.

The success of "The War Wagon" hinges largely on Kennedy's helming as well as his abundant sense of humor. He covers all bases in this western in 101 minutes without wearing out his welcome. There's a funny barroom brawl and the actual robbery of the war wagon is exciting stuff. The only flaw in this wonderful western adventure is the ending. The heroes are punished as if they were villains. They wind up with only a fifth of the loot. The John Wayne character here is one of the few who was convicted of a crime and had to do the time. A corrupt society enables Pierce to gain control of Taw's land and the fortune underneath it and there is no hope that Taw will ever get his ranch back or clear his name. These are events that would have been reckoned with in his Lone Star B-movie westerns. "The War Wagon" is a postmodern oater because everything is flipped upside down. Just for the record, too, the villains kill themselves so that our heroes need not dirty their hands. 

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