Directed by Burt Kennedy with Clair Huffman adapting his novel for the screenplay, The War Wagon is one of those rousing, good-natured westerns that still follows the bad guy as he does bad guy things with a song in his heart. The movie even opens with a tune by Ed Ames, complete with Dimitri Tiomkin’s clip-clopping strings and a jaunty set of background singers.
Kennedy is no stranger to helming offbeat westerns. He made his debut in 1961 with The Canadians and would go on to direct such works as Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter, plus he was in the chair for Frank Sinatra’s Dirty Dingus Magee. With The War Wagon, Kennedy has the good fortune to work with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. Now that’s something.
Wayne stars as the rancher Taw Jackson, who may have one of the best names around. He sweeps into his hometown to settle the score with businessman Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot), who stole his land and threw him in prison. Pierce ships his money around the land in a “war wagon,” a sort of repurposed military stagecoach with a Gatling gun. Jackson aims to rob it, but he’ll need help.
Taw sets out for Lomax (Douglas) first and finds his own pal hanging out in an Oriental-style saloon. He’s the safe-cracker. There’s also a young drunk explosives dude named Billy (Robert Walker, Jr.), an Indian scout named Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel) and an insider named Wes (Keenan Wynn) who bartered himself a young hot wife (Valora Noland).
The War Wagon works like a heist movie. First, Taw has to assemble his crew. This involves negotiating and a funny sequence wherein he and Lomax get Levi Walking Bear out of trouble with a pile of drunk Mexicans. All the while, Douglas and Wayne are a study in contrast. Douglas is a womanizer who likes to hop on his horse in all sorts of cool ways. Wayne is Wayne.
And Wayne’s good here because he seems loose, ready to have a little fun. There are no big sweeping speeches about the land or the country or whatever. He just wants to rob a reinforced wagon. He wants his ranch back. He exchanges derisive barbs with Douglas, but he never cracks his essential character to get the better of the more charismatic man.
Casting Keel as an Indian is one of those classic 1967 choices that seems to make no sense, but he’s actually quite entertaining in the role. He brings a certain cynicism, a shrugging sensibility that offsets the charisma of Douglas and the concision of Wayne. Tossing Walker, Jr. in the mix is a wise move.
Cinematographer William H. Clothier doesn’t do much beyond the point-and-shoot, but there’s a lot of fun pieces to The War Wagon. An upbeat tavern brawl is a highlight, with Wayne happily socking everything that moves and Douglas holding the fort near the bar until time and space requires him to take a swashbuckling swing.
While The War Wagon isn’t the most evocative of westerns, it’s certainly very amusing. It runs as a sort of Ocean’s 11 for the oater set and manages an tongue-in-cheek, vindicated ending that makes use of some of the stereotypes the movie sends up. Wayne has fun as a bad guy and Douglas wanders around shirtless on more than one occasion, plus a drunk kid gets to make good.