John Wayne was the essence of the classic western. Of the 150 or so movies he made during his career over half of them were westerns. Many were of the variety of the cheap budget movies which made him a recognizable albeit underrated star, but beginning with Stagecoach he became a marketable star. A John Wayne movie during his heyday was sure to be one of the bigger moneymakers of the year.
The greatest western movies usually evoked a time long gone by. Sometimes they could be politically incorrect when the enemy was the Native Americans, but the “Cowboys and Indians” trope was not the only one Hollywood used during the golden age of the western. There were also plenty of the “bad guys vs. good guys” type. A list here would make this post long (and probably a bit boring), but suffice to say not all of the westerns had Indians has the enemy.
I chose two here that have similar themes, that of Wayne as a sort of anti-hero. Meaning he plays a character who is somewhat on the wrong side of the law, but he is still a character with whom the audience sides, mainly because the alternative is some fairly shady characters. And both involve trying to get a stash of gold (another western trope that crops up now and then).
The Train Robbers (1973):
The film begins with a pair of desperadoes waiting the arrival of a train. The two men, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson) are expecting the arrival of an old war buddy, Lane (John Wayne). Grady has brought along Calhoun (Christopher George) and Ben (Bobby Vinton), two men that he was asked by Lane to include in the coming event. Also included to round out the gang is Sam (Jerry Gatlin; no relation to the country music Gatlin brothers, as near as I can tell).
When Lane arrives he has a woman with him. He introduces her as Mrs. Lowe, the wife of a deceased train robber. Sometime in the past Lowe and a gang of men robbed a train of $500,000 and it was stashed on a wrecked and abandoned train in the desert near Durango, Mexico. The plan, according to Lane, is not to get the money and split it, but to get it and return it to the train company, thereby clearing Lowe of his nefarious deeds. Ostensibly this is so that Mrs. Lowe’s son won’t grow up thinking daddy was a bad guy.
Of course these guys aren’t going to do it just for the glory of hero-ship. Nor are they going to do it just because Mrs. Lowe is a sweet woman who has an impressionable young child. There is a $50,000 reward for the return of the money, which Lane plans to divide among his compadres.
So seven souls set off in search of gold. But there is an added twist. Ricardo Montalban, as a character whom is never really identified until the denouement, is shadowing them. What his mission is is really unclear, but his presence in the shadows is always there. One could easily get the idea that he plans to hijack the gold once our heroes have actually recovered it.
The gold seekers are also hounded by a horde of men who are probably inspired by the posse that chased Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I say this because they arrive on the scene the same way that the posse did in the earlier movie; already mounted and ready to leap off a train and head out after our crew. They chase the gang, unbeknownst to them in the early stages, but of course never quite catch up to them until the dramatic scene at the wrecked train.
When Lane and his gang arrive at the train, it is as predicted, a wreck in the sands. One could wonder why the train company built a track through the sandy desert, but that is immaterial to the story itself. The gold is stashed aboard the wreck, and Lane and company retrieve it. But by this time they know that a cadre of no-gooders is hot on their trail and decide their only course is to make a stand.
Having decreased the number of their pursuers and chased off the rest the company makes it’s way back to their original destination. But they have to continue to worry about an ambush from the remaining soldiers of fortune. A last stand back at the town is set in motion.
Be sure to stay tuned for the final twist in the film, in which we FINALLY find out who Montalban’s character is and what his goal is. We also find out that Mrs. Lane is not necessarily who she claims to be, either.
The movie is truly enhanced by the musical score. Dominic Frontiere wrote the score, a veteran of Hollywood’s composers who would later win a Golden Globes for best score for The Stunt Man. Burt Kennedy, himself a veteran of many movies, a lot of them westerns, directed Wayne and company. Kennedy also directed our second feature. He worked closely with wayne for his Batjac Productions company over the years, although these two movies were the only ones in which he directed John Wayne.
The War Wagon (1967):
Taw Jackson (John Wayne) has just been released from prison. He was a rancher who had been falsely imprisoned by Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot), a man who eventually acquired Jackson’s ranch, and was now the bigwig in town. Pierce regularly ships gold from a nine he has discovered on the property, in the titular War Wagon, an armored tank decked out with a Gatling gun, and escorted by an army of about 30 or so gunmen.
Jackson engineers a plan to hijack a shipment that Pierce is going to ship which has a value of about $500,000. To help he calls in several friends; Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel), whose help is needed when dealing with the Kiowa Indian tribe that is being railroaded off the land that Pierce wants; an explosives expert Taw met in prison, Billy (Robert Walker, Jr.), an old coot who has a wagon that comes in handy, Fletcher (Keenan Wynn); and an old friend/enemy, Lomax (Kirk Douglas), who is an expert safecracker.
Pierce tries to hire Lomax to kill Jackson and part of the fun of the movie is you never really know which side Lomax is actually going to come out on. He sides with Jackson in the plans, but he has also agreed to Pierce’s offer of money to kill Jackson.
The plan is to attack the war wagon at a weak point in the trail and Billy gets some nitroglycerin to blow up a bridge on the trail. The rousing scenes involving the actual hijacking are riveting to say the least. In the end, the plans go slightly awry, and there is a question whether any of them will be as rich as they hoped.
In an effort to find interesting trivia to entertain my readers, I often watch the special features on DVDs. One fact that stood out is Keenan Wynn’s hat. Wynn found the hat when he was doing a screen test and realized it was the same hat that Leslie Howard wore as a Confederate soldier in Gone with the Wind. So he stole it. And he managed to wear it again in every movie he made thereafter, according to legend. (I must say I can’t remember seeing him wear it in Dr. Strangelove, but it’s a neat story anyway, and at least it LOOKS like the same hat).
Also included in that special feature was an interview with Burt Kennedy in which he stated that he thought Kirk Douglas was such a great fit for the character of Lomax that he voluntarily gave up half of his salary as a director in order to have the budget to hire Douglas to play the role. And he was right. Douglas makes the role very interesting, even with that gaudy ring he wears on the outside of his leather gloves.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.