Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: The War Wagon

A Western fan could do worse than setting out to watch all the movies based on novels and stories by Clair Huffaker, many of them with screenplays by Huffaker himself. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about GUNS OF RIO CONCHOS, which I'd never seen before. This week it's THE WAR WAGON, which I had seen, but not in the past thirty years, at least.

THE WAR WAGON certainly has plenty of star power with both John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in it, playing former enemies who team up to steal a fortune in gold from evil mining tycoon Bruce Cabot, who framed Wayne for a crime and stole his land to get his hands on the gold in the first place. The shipment that Wayne and Douglas are after is being transported in the armored, Gatling-gun-equipped wagon of the title. To pull off the robbery—and THE WAR WAGON is very much a caper film—Wayne also recruits an Indian (an oddly cast Howard Keel), an alcoholic explosives expert (Robert Walker), and a cantankerous old-timer (Keenan Wynn) with a beautiful young wife who complicates things. Along the way, Bruce Dern has a small role as an ambitious but not very smart gunman.

Mostly this movie works very well. It's a little odd seeing good old stalwart Bruce Cabot as a slimy bad guy, but he does a decent job. There are a lot of humorous touches to go along with the well-done action scenes, and Wayne and Douglas are clearly having a good time. Douglas, still very athletic, does most of his own stunts, one of which is played for laughs at the end of the movie.

THE WAR WAGON was directed by Burt Kennedy, a good director who's better known for his screenplays. Clair Huffaker wrote the script based on his novel BADMAN, which was reissued in paperback in a movie tie-in edition under the same title as the movie (an edition I read when it was new). BADMAN, in turn, was an expansion of a novella called "Holdup at Stony Flat", which appeared in the 2nd April, 1957 number of the pulp RANCH ROMANCES, an issue that I happen to own and wrote about a few years ago as part of the Saturday Morning Western Pulp series. The story and the novel are much different, and the movie is even more different, but all three are well worth your time. (Covers are below.)


Richard Krauss said...

Like you, I saw this one when it was a bit younger. Now I want to see it again! Thanks for the reminder and all the great background info!

roadgeek said...

My wife and I watched this several weekends ago. Great little movie. Oh, and the Village People leather outfit Kirk Douglas wore was fantastic. It was obvious John Wayne and Kirk Douglas enjoyed working together.

Marty McKee said...

"Mine was taller." Great stuff.

Unknown said...

I remember reading when the movie came out that Douglas used a little trampoline to make the jump onto his horse.

Unknown said...

A movie full of great lines. My favorite, when Cabot summons henchmen Bruce Dern and Don Collier:

CABOT: Find Lomax, tell him I'll pay him anything to kill Taw Jackson. . . . I'll go for ten thousand.

DERN: Hell, Mr. Pierce, we'd be willing to do it for a lot less than ten thousand dollars.

Dimitri Tiomkin's title tune is excellent.