Monday, October 16, 2017

A War Wagon Loaded With Gold!

John Wayne as ex-con Taw Jackson.
After being "shot, framed, and sent to prison" for three years, Taw Jackson (John Wayne) intends to gain revenge on the goldmine baron responsible. Taw's plan is to rob the Pierce Mining Company when it transports $500,000 of gold ore across 43 miles of treacherous terrain.

It won't be easy. Twenty-eight men, armed with repeating rifles and pistols with 200 rounds of ammo, guard the outside of the gold-carrying wagon. Five more men guard the safe inside the wagon. As if that's not bad enough, the wagon is plated in iron and was recently retrofitted with a turret housing a gatling gun. Folks call it the "war wagon" for a good reason.

Kirk Douglas as Lomax.
Taw assembles a motley crew to assist him with this heist. Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn) is a disgruntled Pierce employee tasked with transporting the stolen gold in flour barrels. The shady Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel) has the responsibility to negotiate with a Kiowa Indian tribe to stage an attack as a diversion. Young Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker, Jr.) is a drunk with a talent for using nitroglycerin. Finally, there's a hired gun named Lomax (Kirk Douglas), who has also been offered $12,000 to kill Taw. Quite the band of merry men!

Made in 1967, The War Wagon is a breezy Western with plenty of action and humor. Among John Wayne's later Westerns, it doesn't rank with the best (True Grit, The Shootist), but I'll take it any day over run-of-the-mill oaters like Rio Lobo and Cahill U.S. Marshal. Plus, it's interesting to see the Duke as--technically--a criminal.

Valora Nolan not playing Animal!
The supporting cast alone makes it required viewing for fans of 1960s cinema and television. It includes Wagon Train TV series regulars Terry Wilson (Bill Hawks) and Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster). Keenan Wynn's "wife" is played by Valora Nolan, best known for her roles in Beach Party (as "Animal") and Muscle Beach Party. One of the bad guys is future High Chaparral regular Don Collier (whom we interviewed in 2016) and another is stuntman and future director Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit).

Although John Wayne receives top billing, Kirk Douglas dominates The War Wagon as the fun-loving gunfighter Lomax. In addition to delivering most of the best lines, the athletic Douglas even steals scenes with his acrobatic approaches to mounting his horse. I do question his character's wardrobe choice, however, as that leather shirt looks like it'd be mighty hot for the Western Plains.

The scene I always remember best about The War Wagon is where a log suspended by ropes swings down and knocks off the top of the wagon. For some reason, it's one of those iconic scenes that seems to stick in one's memory long after plot details are forgotten.

The swinging log heads toward a collision with the war wagon!
By the way, one would expect that co-star Howard Keel would sing the opening "Ballad of the War Wagon," written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington. Instead, that's Ed Ames warbling it on the soundtrack.


  1. The War Wagon is such fun. I get the giggles every time Howard Keel is on screen.

  2. Back in the mid 70s, our family made a trip to LA, and went to Universal Studios. My dad, a huge John Wayne fan, was amazed to see the actual War Wagon sitting in the middle of a park,area at the studio. I still have the picture of him standing next to it, doing his best to appear Duke-like.

  3. This one has escaped me Rick, but what a great cast! I'll look for it as I like a good classic western. Thanks for featuring this one on your blog.

  4. Sign me up! You can't NOT like a film with (A) John Wayne, (B) Kirk Douglas, and (C) a disgruntled Keenan Wynn.

  5. Awesome blog about a film that shines especially because of its cast!