“The War Wagon” (1967) opens with one of the catchiest, most toe tapping and irresistible of all movie songs. Once heard, it’s never forgotten. It’s the “It’s a Small World” of theme songs.
Composed by Dimitri Tiomkin (his last score for a John Wayne movie), lyrics by Ned Washington, and sung by Ed Ames, “The Ballad of the War Wagon” is a real gem. The rest of the movie is pretty darn entertaining too.
John Wayne stars as Taw Jackson (great name, Taw. If I ever had a son, that’s what I would have named him), who is recently released from prison. He seeks vengeance against Pierce (Bruce Cabot) who stole his ranch from him and framed him for an unspecified crime, leading to his jail time.
Pierce is the richest, most feared man in the territory and transports gold in an iron-plated wagon called “The War Wagon”. It boasts a Gatling gun, armed guards inside, and almost two dozen armed men riding in front and back of the War Wagon. Naturally Taw hatches a plan to hijack the War Wagon and steal the gold.
Pierce hears Taw is in town and hires Lomax (Kirk Douglas), the only man in the area fast enough to outdraw Taw, to kill him. But Taw gets to Lomax first and offers him $100,000 to help him steal the War Wagon. Since Pierce had only offered Lomax $10,000, Lomax takes up with Taw.
When Taw and Lomax aren’t sparring with each other, the plan to hijack The War Wagon takes shape. Taw enlists the help of an Indian Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel), an explosives expert (Robert Walker, Jr.), and a cantankerous old man (Keenan Wynn) with a wife young enough to be his daughter. Plus a tribe of Kiowa tribesmen who throw in with Taw to strike back at Pierce. Or do they?
It’s a really entertaining film. Wayne and Douglas play marvelously against each other; it’s just a delight to watch these two great stars butt heads with each other. Even those who don’t like westerns would likely get a kick out of their sparring.
One of my all-time favorite dialogue exchanges occurs in “The War Wagon”. Two greenhorn gunfighters employed by Pierce (one played by a young Bruce Dern) think they can kill Taw in a gunfight and get that $10,000 reward for themselves. They slowly walk away from Taw and Lomax before turning to fire their guns. Of course, Taw and Lomax easily beat them to the draw and the two are killed.
Lomax says, “Mine hit the ground first.”
Taw, looks at him and says, “Mine was taller.”
Heist films are always entertaining and this one has the novelty of being set in the Old West. It’s fun to watch how the plan takes shape. Anyone who has ever seen a heist film, however, knows that the best laid plans never work out the way their makers intended.
No messages here, “The War Wagon” was designed as nothing more than to entertain audiences. “The War Wagon” runs about 99 minutes, is crammed full of action, comedy, good stunt work, pretty girls, and an irresistible song. What more could one ask for?
Rating for “The War Wagon”: Three stars.