Taw Jackson (John Wayne) returns from prison, having survived being shot and lost his ranch to corrupt congressman Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot). He now knows there was gold on his land and that Pierce had him framed so he could get his hands on it. Jackson hatches a plan to steal the gold from Pierce’s seemingly unstoppable armoured wagon but needs help from an expert safecracker. That person happens to be the same man who shot him, a gunman-for-hire named Lomax (Kirk Douglas). Jackson and Lomax strike up an uneasy alliance in return for a share of the gold as they assemble a team for their audacious raid.
Whilst hawking Django Unchained (2012) around the press circuit Quentin Tarantino would often sound off about the supposed decline of the American western during the late Sixties, citing Burt Kennedy and Andrew V. McLaglen as the chief offenders. As was often the case with Q.T. his undoubted passion led him towards somewhat sweeping statements. For although McLaglen was undeniably hit-and-miss he still had Shenandoah (1965) on his resume while Kennedy’s westerns were actually quite consistent on both a thematic level and as rollicking entertainment, the anomaly of Hannie Caulder (1971) notwithstanding. Western author and screenwriter Clair Huffaker, who penned the likes of Flaming Star (1960) and Rio Conchos (1964) along with several vehicles for John Wayne, adapted his own novel for Kennedy’s first film with Wayne which ranks among the few times where the Duke played someone on the wrong side of the law, albeit a hero nonetheless.
The War Wagon also marked Wayne’s third pairing opposite Kirk Douglas following Otto Preminger’s overblown war drama In Harm’s Way (1965) and a cameo in Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). The two stars are well matched and serve up contrasting studies in masculinity. While Wayne is stoic yet exudes a wry, self-deprecating humour, Douglas plays it cocky and flamboyant, dressed like a dandy in a leather shirt and yellow cravat and rocking the one glove look two decades before Michael Jackson. Their banter and constant games of one-upmanship are a continuous delight, nowhere better illustrated than in the classic exchange after they plug a couple of bad guys. Douglas remarks his villain hit the ground first, to which Wayne replies with a twinkle in his eye: “Mine was taller.” Keep a look out for a young Bruce Dern as one of the unfortunate gunmen. He would tangle with Wayne once again in The Cowboys (1972). Future Smokey and the Bandit (1977) director Hal Needham also plays a small role here.
Like a lot of Kennedy’s work this has strong elements of the caper movie as Johnson and Lomax unite a disparate group with specialised skills to pull off an impossible heist. So we have Keenan Wynn as a crotchety old duffer overly possessive of his teenage bride (Valora Noland) and an alcoholic explosives expert played by Robert Walker Jr. who re-teamed with Kennedy to play the title role in Young Billy Young (1969). Most notably we also have musical star Howard Keel somewhat ludicrously cast as a Native American. More surprising is that Keel actually makes a pretty good fist of it without slipping into caricature. It is his character who utters the key line (“Grab all you can, anytime you can”) that crystalises the film’s faintly cynical theme. Whereas Howard Hawks commonly had a group of misfits band together for the greater good, here the alliance is riven with mistrust. Johnson and Lomax circle each other warily, if amiably but the rest of the group fall apart quite rapidly. In Kennedy’s westerns even heroes hide ulterior motives, a double-cross lurks around every corner and people are out for themselves. However, the finale is benign and more in line with the sense of poetic justice established in previous John Wayne films. Masterfully photographed by William H. Clothier, the Panavision frame is crucial to appreciating Kennedy’s deft handling of suspense and spectacle when Kirk and the Duke finally raid that fortress on wheels. It never stood a chance. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin including a very catchy theme song.