David Dodd 2:33 a.m., May 19
There but for the grace of John Wayne's The War Wagon go I
I've been on a John Wayne jag of late, trying my best to catch up on what remains of the few post-Stagecoach pictures that heretofore have escaped my critical gaze. For some reason I had it in my head that The War Wagon was directed by Wayne's drinking buddy, hack director Andrew V. McLaglen (McLintock, Chisum, Cahill U.S. Marshall), son of ham-fisted John Ford supporting player and drinking buddy, Victor McLaglen.
As soon as I saw Burt Kennedy's name on the back of the DVD box, it became clear that the $5 spent on Universal's Screen Legend Collection: John Wayne would not go to waste. Also included the the 3-disc set are DeMille's Reap the Wild Wind (Duke battles to his death against a giant rubber squid), The Spoilers (another unseen Wayne outing), and two of the star's most laughable late-period productions, Hellfighters and Rooster Cogburn.
My reasons for avoiding The War Wagon were not intentional. Dad didn't take me to see it, so the only option made available was a pan-and-scan print on The Best of CBS. I took a pass until years later when a third-run theatre in Chicago that played Spanish language films decided to revive it on the bottom half of a double bill with Howard Hawks' El Dorado. Both prints were 35mm dye-transfer Technicolor and both had seen better days. El Dorado was subtitled in Spanish, but The War Wagon was dubbed and impossible for this gringo to follow. After garnering a few laughs listening to John Wayne and Kirk Douglas speaking in badly-dubbed Spanish, I made my way to the exit door.
It wasn't until last night's screening that I realized the danger the film almost put me in. I was 11 when The War Wagon was released, just about the same time the class bully decided that my number was up. "You see this ring?" Juan "Johnnie" Pizarro (no relation to either the conquistador or major league baseball player) said while shoving his fist in my face. "This ring leaves a permanent scar and tomorrow after school I'm going to punch you in the face with it."
Johnnie's calendar was booked solid that afternoon so he penciled me in for a next day appointment. He ended his threat by once again shaking his fist in my face, this time shouting, "WAR WAGON!"
Last night, Johnnie's defiant cry finally made sense.
Kirk Douglas plays Lomax, a gunslinger who joins forces with ex-foe Taw Jackson (Wayne) and three of his cronies to steal a shipment of gold from the title conveyance. It's basically a western remake of Ocean's 11 (minus 6) with Robert Walker, Jr. in the alcoholic Dean Martin role and Howard Keel as a cynical Injun' reminiscent of Brooklyn-born character actor Henry Silva whose Sicilian and Spanish ancestry allowed him to play everything from Native Americans to Asians to Johnny Cool. The most flagrant lift is Keenan Wynn assuming the Buddy Lester seat as a cowboy who is perennially pissed-off over the cracks all of the other cowpokes make about his much younger bride.
Douglas sports a black glove on his left hand with a giant jeweled band wrapped around his ring finger. He confides in one of his Mexican hookers that his chin-dimple was the result of sleeping face-down on the ring.
Johnnie's dad must have taken his boy to see The War Wagon and the kid couldn't wait to recreate Kirk's actions in the playground. When the bell sounded the next day, Johnnie was nowhere in sight. Not to sound disappointed or anything, but instead of the beating of my life, all I got was a sleepless night.