The War Wagon (1967)


Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Howard Keel, Bruce Cabot, Robert Walker Jr., Keenan Wynn, Joanna Barnes, Bruce Dern, Sheb Wooley

Unpretentious, tongue-in-cheek, this slam-bang action movie is one of the best vehicles John Wayne appeared in during the last two decades of his long career. The tone for the movie is set early on, with Kirk and Duke exchanging funny remarks after they have gunned down two opponents:

"Mine hit the ground first"

"Mine was taller."

Basically John and Kirk are anti-heroes, thieves, villains, but apparently this was still a bit of a daring idea in '67 Hollywood, so the mine owner (Cabot) they try to rob, is a corrupt businessman, who stole the Duke's properties in the first place. In other words: the Duke is stealing his own gold back, and what is essentially a caper movie, is turned into a revenge movie.

The wagon from the title, is an armor-plated stagecoach, provided with a revolving turret with a fixed machine gun, in which Cabot transports the gold dust he has found on Duke's land. Apart from the armor and the machine gun, the wagon is protected by an entire army of heavily armed gunman. The war wagon is therefore told to be an impregnable fortress of a vehicle, but The Duke thinks he can take it with the help of Douglas (a professional gunslinger who was hired to kill him!), an alcoholic explosives specialist, a grumpy wagon driver (with a teenage bride) and a wise-cracking Indian, played by Howard Keel (in great form).

What makes this movie even more fun, is that it almost plays like a spaghetti western. There's this gimmick of the armored wagon, the edgy humor, the laughing Mexicans (torturing an Indian!) and even a silly brawl in the saloon. Like some have mentioned, it's surprisingly limited in scope for a John Wayne movie, larger than life, but far from the usual 'epic' approach of his productions. The sermonizing that plagues some of his later movies is also absent here.

The similarities to the Italian western, are most probably coincidental; when this film was made, comedy westerns were not yet dominant in Italy, so it seems unlikely that there was any real influence. Instead the movie might have influenced at least one spaghetti western, A man called Sledge, an Italian production made by a American director and starring American actors such as James Garner, Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins, about a gang of outlaws trying to intercept a shipment of gold protected by an army of gunmen.


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