Wagons East!

Starring: John Candy, Richard Lewis

Director: Peter Markle
Released: 1994

Mood: If you want to watch an obscure Western to reference in case someone brings up John Candy at a party… or you’re REALLY f*cking high.

“This country was founded by quitters. English quitters. French quitters. German quitters. For your information, if it weren’t for quitters, no one would start anything.”

Phil Taylor (Richard Lewis)

When I reviewed A Fistful of Dollars, I admitted that I used to think a Spaghetti Western was a stupid, slapstick comedy Western. And Wagons East is exactly what I had in mind as the stupidest slapstick Western I’ve ever seen. 

Reviewers hate this movie. I mean REALLY f*cking hate it. It’s made lists of the worst Westerns ever made. It’s made lists of the worst movies ever made. Hell, it’s even considered by most to be the worst John Candy movie.  

But I remembered loving this movie as a kid! When I spotted the DVD at Value Village, I had to at least give it a home. I’ve watched it twice in the last month (you know my rule: give every movie a fair chance before I shit all over it). 

And the thing is, I’m not here to shit all over Wagons East. I still like it for what it is. 

Western fans should be able to laugh with AND at the genre, and that’s what Wagons East is doing. It’s starring Richard Lewis for f*ck’s sake, did you really expect a cinematic masterpiece?! Unfortunately, yeah, it does fall short of smarter, zanier Western comedies like The Villain (which Wagons East nods to in multiple ways) and Blazing Saddles

But it’s like an old Adam Sandler movie – it’s okay to find it entertaining, even when you know there are better movies out there. Go ahead and roll your eyes and laugh along with Wagons East, and its mockery of stereotypical Western themes and characters.

Wagons East opens on the bleak Wild West. As a posse of ruffians robs a bank, the exasperated teller (Robert Picardo) points out that it’s stupid to hit the same bank thrice in one month, because the money is still gone from last time. 

Next we see Julian (a young John C. McGinley), a flamboyant bookstore keeper who mistakenly thinks a dirty redneck is a legit customer. Julian tries to sell him a copy of Pride and Prejudice for $2, to which the man replies, “How much for just Pride?”. It turns out the dude only wanted to tear out the pages for toilet paper. 

Townsfolk are fed up with the dirty, rough, ‘wild’ of the West. Then Phil Taylor (Richard Lewis) asks the fateful question: why not go back East? Everyone is so big on going West, but why? They’ve experienced nothing but misery since leaving the safety and comfort of their East Coast settlements.

The people are almost ready to say f*ck it, when who should stumble into the bar but the extremely intoxicated wagonmaster James Harlow (John Candy).

The rest of the movie follows the misadventures of the wagon train as hired bad guy John Slade (Ed Lauter) tries to thwart them using every Looney Tunes gag except the anvil drop.  

illustration of a fancy moustache

I think the biggest downfall of Wagons East is John Candy as the straight man. There are a few great moments of his signature brand of physical humour, but for the most part it’s a restrained John Candy – not the giant personality we knew and loved. 

In a trope twist similar to Blazing Saddles, McGinley’s Julian is an overtly gay man, and the smartest and the biggest badass in a world of dim-witted white dudes. He’s by far my favourite part of Wagons East. It was cool to see him in a role so totally different from cranky, sarcastic Perry Cox in Scrubs.

Julian owns the best scene in the entire movie: “Listen pumpkin, you have really got to get yourself some medical attention. Those gut shots have the nastiest tendency to fester.”

There are lots of other fun “I know him/her!” actors in this movie:

  • Robert Picardo (who plays the beleaguered banker Ben Wheeler) has been in basically every sci-fi show of the last two decades, and does voices for major video games
  • Belle is played by Ellen Greene, who starred as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors
  • The short-lived hillbilly Zack Ferguson is played by Joel McKinnon Miller, who currently makes up one half of the iconic duo Hitchcock and Scully on Brooklyn Nine-Nine
  • Earnest and lovelorn Billy is played by Lochlyn Munro, who had previously appeared in Unforgiven, and later starred in Dawn Rider
  • Zeke is played by William Sanderson, a grizzled Western veteran who has been in literally everything: Bret Maverick, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Lonesome Dove, Crossfire Trail, Monte Walsh, Deadwood… this man is like mashed potatoes at a holiday dinner – he’s not the turkey, but he complements it so perfectly that you can’t have the main course without him
  • Gailard Sartain, who appeared in multiple Ernest movies, does his trademark scream in an uncredited turn as J.P. Moreland

Wagons East was going for Mel Brooks-style humour, but missed the mark. The thing about Mel Brooks movies is that they do the stupid goofy comedy, but there’s a sharp underlying intelligence. And when it comes to gut-busting laughs over Wile E. Coyote gags, The Villain’s Kirk Douglas did it better.

illustration of a fancy moustache

That isn’t to say that Wagons East is boring – it has plenty of ridiculously funny scenes. My boyfriend and dad, both lifelong Western fans, think Wagons East is hilarious. 

It is too bad that this was John Candy’s last movie (he died on location during the final days of filming), and that he apparently didn’t even want to do it. You can feel that lack of enthusiasm from him, and maybe that’s what held Wagons East back from reaching its zany spoof potential

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