Douglas and Wayne share an Uneven Keel
Both John Wayne and Kirk Douglas made some great westerns and although the underlying storylines to their westerns were similar what they brought to their movies was different. John Wayne was this no messing hero, the old time cowboy who went about his business whilst Kirk Douglas was often a more flamboyant cowboy with an eye for the ladies. As such "The War Wagon" which stars John Wayne and Kirk Douglas should make for an entertaining mix as their different styles and personas crash against each other. And for about the first 20 minutes "The War Wagon" genuinely is very good as we watch John Wayne and Kirk Douglas's characters spark off of each other in a game of one-upmanship. But then it gets bogged down by a rather mundane storyline the amusement of Wayne and Douglas's sparky banter is lost leaving an entertaining but not overly memorable western.
Following his release from jail Taw Jackson (John Wayne - El Dorado) returns to the town where he use to live with a plan to get his revenge on Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot) for not only setting him up but also for stealing his land and gold. Hiring Lomax (Kirk Douglas - The Heroes of Telemark), a man who had previously shot him some 5 years earlier, they set about getting Jackson's money back by robbing the armoured stage coach which Pierce uses for transporting his money.
Ignoring the fun of John Wayne and Kirk Douglas appearing in the same movie it has to be said that the storyline to "The War Wagon" is rather dull. It's basically a revenge storyline where Taw Jackson wants to get his own back on Frank Pierce for setting him up for a crime which he went to jail for and for stealing his land. But rather than being a revenge movie where the aim is to murder it's about stealing Pierce's money and in doing so getting his land back. It's not overly original and the fact that Jackson recruits a small group of men to help makes it similar to countless other westerns. Having said that, whilst unoriginal it works and is a solid enough vehicle for various cliche western scenes.
Now it has to be said that there is a lot that is forgettable about "The War Wagon" when it comes to the action and storyline but it does have some good moments. There is a rather well choreographed fist fight in a bar and the way Jackson and his team aim to steal Pierce's gold is quite spectacular as they booby trap a bridge. These few moments, these well made scenes make up for a lot of what appears to be generic western action.
Unfortunately when "The War Wagon" isn't peaking with some action there is little which stands out, that is except for the first 20 minutes and the last 5 minutes when it's all about John Wayne and Kirk Douglas basically trying to out do each other. Both John Wayne and Kirk Douglas deliver stereotypical performances, the sort of thing you've seen them do in various other westerns but together it makes it all the more entertaining as their different ways not so much clash but spark off each other. Early on in the movie when they shoot two men Douglas's Lomax says his man hit the ground first whilst Wayne's Jackson says his was taller. It's this one-upmanship, this playful banter which makes "The War Wagon" entertaining except it really only lasts for about 20 minutes before the rather mundane storyline takes precedence.
Aside from John Wayne and Kirk Douglas it has to be said that the rest of the cast deliver uninspiring performances with Howard Keel looking constantly ill at ease as Apache Levi Walking Bear. It is very much a case that "The War Wagon" was meant to be about John Wayne and Kirk Douglas but the lack of solid performances from a supporting cast dealing with poorly written characters doesn't help matters.
What this all boils down to is that "The War Wagon" isn't a bad western in fact it is very much a stereotypical western with various generic elements. But it seems a wasted opportunity as for the first 20 minutes as it focuses on John Wayne and Kirk Douglas basically competing with each other it is great fun, it's just a shame that after that it all becomes rather ordinary.