Tag Archives: Clair Huffaker

The War Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 28, 2013

The War Wagon—John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Howard Keel, Bruce Cabot, Robert Walker, Keenan Wynn, Bruce Dern, Harry Carey, Jr., Sheb Wooley, Chuck Roberson (1967; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

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Fairly good late period John Wayne, better written by Clair Huffaker than most of Wayne’s regular fare.  This is an assembling-the-team-and-pulling-the-caper western (like The Badlanders and The Train Robbers) by Wayne’s Batjac production company.  It also represents Burt Kennedy’s move from writing (the best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott films) and television directing to directing movies.  This was about as good as director Kennedy would get, though, except for his Support Your Local … pair starting the following year. 

Honest rancher Taw Jackson (Wayne) gets out of prison after three years and returns on parole to Emmett, New Mexico, about 43 ½ miles from El Paso.  He lost his ranch and was framed for some unspecified crime by Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot), owner of the Pierce Mining Company, when gold was found on the ranch.  The wagon of the title is Pierce’s armored stagecoach, used for delivering gold to the railroad, accompanied by more than thirty armed guards on horses.  The sheriff is clearly in Pierce’s pocket. 

WarWagonWagonThe Wagon.

Jackson aims to get back some of his gold when an unusually large shipment ($500,000) is due to move.  He first recruits amoral old enemy Lomax (Kirk Douglas), gunman, gambler, womanizer, bon vivant and, not incidentally, safecracker.  He had made arrangements in prison with Billy Hyatt (young Robert Walker, son of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones), alcoholic but good with explosives, and with dishonest Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn), who hauls freight for Pierce and provides both information and a means of transporting the loot (in barrels of flour).  The final member of the team is Levi Walking Bear (a ludicrously cast Howard Keel, but he’s mostly comic relief), for his connections with the Kiowas led by Wild Horse, who is to provide a diversion for the wagon’s outriders during the robbery.

WarWagon2Lomax and Jackson.

Pierce outfits the wagon with a gatling gun just before the run, but with a few ups and downs things work out mainly as planned.  When the outriders are distracted by the Kiowas, Billy uses nitroglycerin to blow up a bridge and separate them from the wagon.  Lomax and Walking Bear set a trap to remove the wagon’s driver.  Pierce, inside the wagon, has a falling out with two of his henchmen at a critical moment, and they shoot him as he shoots them.  Fletcher shows up at the appointed place with his young blond wife (bought from her parents and played by Valora Noland), and the team puts the gold loose in the flour barrels.  Wild Horse, however, tries to double-cross them until distracted, and perhaps blown up, by nitroglycerin.  The Indians shoot Fletcher and the flour/gold wagon bolts driverless.  The barrels roll out toward the starving Kiowa women and old people, and the gang appears to have lost its loot—except that Jackson finds a few bags that Fletcher had surreptitiously stolen.  Presumably, Jackson gets his ranch back, and Billy gets Fletcher’s young, blond wife.

Kirk Douglas had been a significant movie star for 20 years when this was made, but a point is made of his athleticism, such as frequently leaping on to horses without using the stirrups.  He wears a hat less than most actors in westerns, as in The Last Sunset.  Douglas is dressed in very tight-fitting clothes, including a suede tunic-vest that must have been difficult to get into, matching suede boots, black form-fitting stretch pants and black gloves with a large ring on the outside of one finger.  The Douglas-Wayne interplay is very effective; they made three films together in as many years.  According to the production notes on the 2003 DVD release, Keenan Wynn’s battered hat that he wears in the picture was Leslie Howard’s Confederate cavalry hat from Gone With the Wind which Wynn purloined from MGM.  Wynn first wore the hat in a 1942 MGM screen test and “wore it in every picture he made.”  Although Wynn plays a crazy/dishonest old man, he was in fact nine years younger than Wayne.  According to Wayne, the (gratuitous) fight in the saloon was his 500th on-screen fight.

 WarWagonGold Loading the gold.

There are a number of the Wayne regulars along for the ride.  Harry Carey, Jr., Bruce Cabot, Sheb Wooley, Chuck Roberson.  Bruce Dern, a slimy Pierce henchman who gets killed early in the movie, would be the first to kill John Wayne in a western a few years later in The Cowboys.  The gold dust looks rather obviously like iron pyrite.

To see John Wayne as an outlaw again, look at 3 Godfathers, The Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, and The Train Robbers.  Maybe The Sons of Katie Elder.  He’s showing his age here; he’d already lost a lung to cancer, and it’s not terribly believable when he and Douglas seem to leap from the crashing war wagon.  But it’s an enjoyable and watchable movie anyway, if not among his best—better and more coherent than the previous year’s El Dorado, even though the estimable Howard Hawks directed that one.

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Filmed in color by William Clothier in Durango, Mexico.  Music by Dimitri Tiomkin, but it’s not one of his more memorable scores.  Theme song sung by Ed Ames.

This was the first of three John Wayne movies in which one of his old acting pals plays a dubious Indian:  Howard Keel here, Neville Brand in Cahill U.S. Marshal, and Bruce Cabot in Big Jake.  Young Robert Walker didn’t have much of a movie career, but you can catch him in another western:  Young Billy Young, with Robert Mitchum, also directed by Burt Young.

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Rio Conchos

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 12, 2013

Rio Conchos—Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman, Anthony Franciosa, Jim Brown, Edmond O’Brien, Wende Wagner, Rodolfo Acosta (1964; Dir:  Gordon Douglas)

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The lead is ostensibly Stuart Whitman, but Richard Boone steals this better-than-average western, and actually gets top billing in the wake of his Have Gun Will Travel stardom on television.  Jim Brown doesn’t have many lines in his movie debut, made just before his last football season, but he looks good and conveys a sense of fighting expertise.    

In 1867, Capt. Haven (Whitman) and Sgt. Franklyn (Brown) are transporting 2000 repeating rifles from St. Louis to Texas.  The rifles are stolen by a former Confederate, Col. Theron (“The Grey Fox”) Pardee (Edmond O’Brien), who takes them to Mexico.  Pardee plans to sell them to Apaches led by Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta as the Apache chief, just as he was in Hondo and Trooper Hook).  Former Confederate Major Jim Lassiter (Boone) returned from the war to find his wife and son killed by Apaches, and he has become a revenge-obssessed alcoholic.  The movie starts with a scene of Lassiter killing half a dozen Indians at a burial.  When Haven finds Lassiter with one of the stolen rifles and tosses Lassiter in jail, Lassiter is forced to help Haven and Franklyn try to recover or destroy the guns across the Rio Grande in Mexico.  He reluctantly agrees, if they take Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), a charming Mexican murderer also in jail, who speaks both Spanish and Apache.  The four don’t trust each other, and that’s where much of the drama lies for this movie.  How good is Lassiter’s word?  Can Rodriguez be relied on?  Does Haven know what he’s doing?

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Capturing the Apache maiden (Wende Wagner).

Along the way they acquire a prisoner, Apache maiden Sally (Wende Wagner in dark paint and decolletage), who adds another note of hostility to the group although she doesn’t speak English.  They make their way into Mexico with a wagon load of gunpowder as bait for the gun thieves, fighting among themselves and with Mexican banditos and Apaches.  Lassiter is the most resourceful fighter and tactician among them, but they all have their strengths (as with The Professionals two years later).  They finally find Pardee on the Rio Conchos (a tributary of the Rio Grande, extending into the state of Chihuahua), along with the rifles and Bloodshirt’s Apaches, but are captured by the Indians and tortured before an explosive ending. 

rioconchosCaptured Captured by Bloodshirt.

There’s lots of action, most of it well-filmed.  Whitman is somewhat wooden and his part seems a little underwritten, but Boone is great, with a magnificent voice and weatherbeaten looks.  Franciosa is also very good, but his characterization (and that of most Mexicans in this movie) will strike current audiences as a little broad and perhaps stereotypical.  Wende Wagner, in her first movie, is the weak link, both in acting and in her part as written in the movie.  She doesn’t look much like an Indian (although she apparently had some Indian ancestry along with German and French), and her movie career didn’t develop into much.  Most of the dramatic tension comes from trying to figure out whether the four or five central characters will be, on balance, good or bad.  In the end only Haven and Sally survive the final action, and improbably they seem to go off together.  But Lassiter does get Bloodshirt, or, rather, they get each other.  

RioConchosIndianAttack Apache attack.

This movie has a darker and grittier tone than, say, The Comancheros, which has a similar plot (stopping the sale of firearms to Indians) and the same screenwriter.  It probably suffered in its time for being an ensemble piece without instantly identifiable good guys, instead of a John Wayne-style obvious good guys vs. obvious bad guys western of the sort that audiences were used to then.  Lassiter, the most compelling character, is sometimes hard to identify with.  But that also makes it less predictable in its way.  An underrated and, these days, seldom seen western.

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Filmed in Arizona and around Moab, Utah.  Screenwriters are Joseph Landon and Clair Huffaker (who also wrote The Comancheros, The War Wagon and the novel on which this film is based).  Good early score by Jerry Goldsmith.  Available on DVD as of 2011 together with Take a Hard Ride, a spaghetti western featuring Jim Brown on another expedition into Mexico.  This was probably the best western directed by Gordon Douglas, who also directed Fort Dobbs, Yellowstone Kelly and the 1966 Stagecoach remake, along with Barquero and at least one episode of Maverick. 

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