The War Wagon

Starring: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas

Director: Burt Kennedy
Released: 1967

Mood: If you love a good heist like Ocean’s Eleven and wish you could find a movie that’s equally witty and satisfying but make it an oldschool Western.

I feel weird admitting this here, on my Western review website… but I somehow went my entire life until now avoiding John Wayne.

I was convinced that I didn’t like him, although I have NO idea how that started. But that’s a thing I do – once I get it into my head that I don’t like something, it’s done. I’ll probably go to my grave having never eaten an olive but hating them with the fire of a thousand suns. 

Western fans like John Wayne. His name is the first that comes to mind when you say ‘Western’, and there must be like 500 f*cking John Wayne movie box sets. You hear impressions of his voice all the damn time – in cartoons, sitcoms, Whose Line is it Anyway, and even movies as vastly different as Big Trouble in Little China (Kurt Russell’s entire performance as Jack Burton is a John Wayne parody) and The Birdcage.

The more pressure there was to like John Wayne, the more I threw my head back and dug in my heels, like my horse in front of a puddle. 

The reason I bought The War Wagon was because of Kirk Douglas (and because I’m compelled to give every thrift store Western DVD a home). 

IT TURNS OUT I LIKE JOHN WAYNE. Who knew. A new world has opened before me.  

The War Wagon dvd

The War Wagon opens with an irresistibly catchy theme song, sung by Ed Ames and composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, who scored many Westerns including High Noon and the famous theme for Rawhide

Seriously, how freaking great are those campy ‘50s and ‘60s Western theme songs?  

Taw Jackson (John Wayne) rides into town and you can tell he’s a big deal. Within five minutes he has a bounty on his head. Men are dispatched by greedy businessman Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) to find Lomax (Kirk Douglas), to offer him $10,000 to kill Taw. 

But Taw gives zero f*cks, and goes into a saloon to find Lomax himself. The first scene with Wayne and Douglas sets the tone for the rest of the movie – their banter is scathingly funny, zinging each other back and forth like two old frenemies. 

Even after they exit the saloon and gun down two men in the street who tried to kill Taw, they’re bickering over whose shot was better: “Mine hit the ground first.” “Mine was taller.”

Taw was framed by Pierce and wrongfully imprisoned. While he was in prison, Pierce stole his gold-rich land. Taw intends to get revenge by robbing Pierce of a gold shipment aboard his ‘War Wagon’, a stagecoach so tricked out it’s basically a f*cking horse-drawn tank complete with Gatling gun. 

The War Wagon carries $50,000 in gold over 43.5 miles, covered by 33 guards (28 outriders, five inside the coach), each armed with a Henry repeating rifle, two Colts, and 200 rounds of ammo. So, y’know. Easy-peasy

  • Taw: “We’re going to take that wagon.”
  • Lomax: “Have you taken a look lately at the cemetery in Emmett? There’s a bunch of cheap wooden crosses in one corner all kind of crowded in together. That’s the tribute to the last fools who tried to stop The War Wagon.”

The War Wagon quickly becomes a heist akin to Ocean’s Eleven. Taw enlists the safecracking, gunfighting Lomax plus three others: the young alcoholic explosives expert Billy (Robert Walker), token Native Levi Walking Bear (played by white dude Howard Keel) for muscle and bartering with other Natives, and a surly old shyster employed by Pierce (Keenan Wynn). 

illustration of a fancy moustache

Douglas is thoroughly enjoyable as Lomax. He’s got this cocky charm that borders on smarmy (especially around women – he gets lecherous) and works perfectly for Lomax. You’re never 100% sure whose side he’s on. 

Douglas is quickly rising up my list of favourite leading men in Westerns.

Where Lomax is charming and self-assured, Wayne’s Taw is just plain fearless. He never shows a moment of doubt or weakness through the entire operation, and remains unflappable next to Douglas’ more volatile Lomax. I’m not sure if that’s how Wayne chose to play the character or if that’s his ‘thing’, but it worked for the role. 

The shootouts and cinematography in The War Wagon are mostly nothing special, coming at the tail end of an era where Westerns were kind of just cranked out. But there’s a F*CKING GREAT saloon brawl scene with overplayed punches and much buffoonery, which Lomax watches all nonchalant.  

If you don’t love a good 50-man bar fight accompanied by a lively piano melody (until the pianist is knocked out), we can’t be friends. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

The only things that bugged me about The War Wagon were that the women’s hairstyles and clothes were more ‘60s than Western, and that the Natives were thwarted by a rude stereotype (they’re distracted from piles of gold by a mickey-sized bottle of liquor, WTF). 

Roger Ebert said in his review that John Wayne’s performance was a departure, playing a bad guy for the first time in his career. That makes no sense to me, since like Ocean’s Eleven or any Robin Hood story, these are NOT villains or antagonists. Taw was simply taking back what was rightfully his by force (and a little nitroglycerin). 

I’m officially stoked on my first John Wayne movie. I may have to borrow one of those box sets from my dad or my boyfriend’s dad… 

But first, more Kirk Douglas!

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