Sunday, March 12, 2017

The War Wagon

A couple of months back I DVRed The War Wagon. Noticing that it's available on DVD at both Amazon and the TCM Shop, I decided to sit down and watch it so I could do a full-length post on it.

After a pretty dire opening theme song with credits superimposed over footage of what looks like an armor-plated covered wagon, we get to the movie itself. Taw Jackson (John Wayne) comes riding into the town of Emmett, NM, something which doesn't seem to make anybody happy. Taw reports to Deputy Hoag and his boss, Sheriff Strike: it turns out that Taw was in prison for three years and as part of his parole he has to meet with the police on riding into a town he intends to stay in, and then meeting them once a week. We learn that it's not just the authorities that don't like him; Pierce (Bruce Cabot), who seems to own the town, doesn't like him either.

Then we learn why Pierce wouldn't like him. Taw goes to meet Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn), who seems to be in Pierce's employ transporting goods by cart. Fletcher is also an old friend of Taw's, and Taw has a plan for him. Apparently, Pierce had Taw framed and stole Taw's ranch from him while Taw was in prison. Worse, while Taw was in prison Pierce discovered gold on the land, something which has made Pierce a wealthy man and has only stoked Taw's resentment. So Taw is going to rob a shipment of gold. And that armored covered wagon we saw during the opening credits? That's known as the "war wagon", used to ship the gold and protected by outriders with guns, a couple of gunmen inside, and a machine gun on top!

Taw, in addition to recruiting Fletcher, has three other people in mind for the job. First is Lomax (Kirk Douglas). Lomax shot Taw three years back before Taw went to prison, so there's not necessarily any friendship there, but certainly a lot of respect. Lomax, though, is still being recruited by Pierce to kill Taw, and for a substantial sum. Taw intends to use Lomax both as a hired gun and a logistics man.

Also in on the plot will be Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker, Jr., credited without the "Jr."), who is the explosives man. The only problem is, he's also a problem drinker, and Lomax has the very sensible idea that explosives and drunks don't mix. Billy is also looking for love, and immediately cottons to Fletcher's young wife (Valora Noland), thinking it's actually Fletcher's daughter. So more problems for the whole motley crew. Rounding out the crew is Levi Walking Bear, played by a hilariously miscast Howard Keel. His part in the plot is to be a liaison with the Kiowa tribe, who are being driven off their land by Pierce.

Close to the first two-thirds of the movie involves learning about the plot and assembling the various members of the gang who are going to pull it off, until we get to the typically more exciting action of the actual heist. This isn't to say that Taw's getting all of the gang together is bad. It's handled with low-key humor as well as a reasonable amount of action -- there are at least two gunfights, a saloon fight, and something vaguely resembling a hostage-taking situation. It's more that I think it's a general rule for movies like this that you have to have a slower buildup of getting all the people involved in the heist together. It's just not a naturally action-packed thing. Douglas and Wayne both do well with the humor, while Bruce Cabot makes a suitable villain. The rest of the gang don't intrude too badly. The actual heist comes off well, and makes the final third of the movie reasonably exciting.

The War Wagon is a reasonably good entry in both the western genre and the heist genre. There's nothing outstanding about it, but it more than succeeds in entertaining, and is more than worth a watch.

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