John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and a bunch of nitroglycerine in a Western heist movie – what’s not to love? In The War Wagon, Wayne and Douglas plan to rob the eponymous war wagon carrying $500,000 in gold and avoid a Gatling gun while they do it. While the Burt Kennedy caper is full of humor and action, and some great lines, it doesn’t seem to have much of a footprint in the cultural landscape. Sure, it might not be The Searchers or Rio Bravo, but The War Wagon deserves a share of the praise The Duke’s more well-renowned movies regularly get.
‘The War Wagon’ Is a Victim of John Wayne’s Success
There are few stars that have a filmography as stacked as John Wayne, both from a volume and quality standpoint. Whether you look at the 1930s or the 1970s, you can find a legitimately great movie with John Wayne top-billed without breaking a sweat. The inevitable consequence of a deep and wide-ranging career is that a lot of excellent movies fall through the cracks and fail to find a place in the wider audience’s consciousness. One such movie is The War Wagon, which has such a no-brainer selling point that it’s shocking no one seems to care about it.
In The War Wagon, John Wayne plays Taw Jackson, a rancher that was framed for a crime and swindled out of his property and the gold beneath it by his rival Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot). Out on parole after three years, Jackson hatches a plan to get back his property by robbing Pierce’s upcoming gold shipment worth half a million dollars with the help of Lomax (Kirk Douglas) – the man Pierce has hired to kill him. How is this not everyone’s favorite movie?
John Wayne & Kirk Douglas Have Incredible Chemistry in ‘The War Wagon’
One of the selling points of The War Wagon is its star power. Despite being extremely different people, the pair work perfectly on screen. The War Wagon is the last of their collaborations as well as their third in as many years, having previously appeared together in In Harm’s Way and Cast a Giant Shadow, and they show off their rapport right from their characters’ first meetings. The pair banter, there’s a gunshot, Lomax is wearing a shirt that looks like it’s made of leather, and Jackson convinces Lomax to rob the war wagon. The back and forth as Lomax outlines why this heist can’t work is a real highlight.
Despite Douglas wearing lifts in a few scenes to make up for some of the seven-inch height difference with The Duke, the contrast in body types and demeanor adds to the dynamic, particularly as they pretend to be enemies in public. While Jackson goes about setting up the heist in a very John Wayne manner, Lomax instead wanders around in silk robes embroidered with dragons, shows off his card skills, and hits on just about every woman he comes across. Douglas also rides a horse named Beau, the same horse he rode in Spartacus, which John Wayne would go on to ride in a few later films such as True Grit.
‘The War Wagon’ Features an All-Time Great Bar Brawl
The bar brawl is a core feature of many Westerns, and The War Wagon features one of the best. Sometimes the action can lean too far into humor (the mud-hole fight in McClintock! is a good example) or be completely devoid of it, but this particular brawl straddles the line perfectly. There are broken bottles, broken chairs, broken windows, and a piano used as a weapon. The gag of someone walking into the saloon only to get punched in the face immediately is well-deployed. It’s really everything you could want from a bar brawl and highlights one of the best things about the movie – it’s just great fun.
‘The War Wagon’ Is Also a Great Heist Movie
Bank robberies, train robberies, carriage robberies, and, well, just about any kind of robbery you can think of are staples of the Western genre. However, very few Westerns should really be considered heist movies. It is perhaps an esoteric distinction, but something being stolen is not the same as something being heisted. There’s a level of planning and guile inherent in a heist that separates it from a run-of-the-mill smash-and-grab or just pulling a gun on someone. You have to put a team together, devise a clever plan, gather the necessary equipment, and inevitably change all of that when something goes wrong. The War Wagon nails all of this, starting with a great putting-a-team-together sequence.
The team that Jackson and Lomax put together includes Levi Walking Bear (the casting of Howard Keel here is wildly offensive, but sadly a hallmark of the time in which it was made), who has “learned to live in the white man’s world and do what they do. Grab all you can, anytime you can,” a cantankerous old man and his far too young wife, and an alcoholic explosive expert (Robert Walker Jr.). They also enlist the help of a nearby Native American tribe that also wants revenge against Pierce.
Where things really get into a heist movie groove is when they run a bluff against Pierce to steal his nitroglycerine to blow a bridge, disguising this as nothing more than Jackson wanting some clothes in the ranch Pierce stole from him. It’s a ridiculous plan but with some of the pettiness already shown by Jackson, it makes just enough sense. The high-stakes rigging of the bridge that is made possible by this scene is truly excellent, filled with tension as the highly unstable explosive is placed gently in the wooden beams below the bridge. When the heist is actually put into motion, it is kinetic and propulsive, and the explosion is spectacular. As is inevitable in a movie of this kind, things go awry. There is a double cross, another double cross that ends up helping, and spilled flour plays a shockingly large part in the overall resolution. It really could not be much more satisfying.