Friday, February 25, 2011

The War Wagon

So many scenes and lines of dialog in The War Wagon are reminiscent of ASJ episodes that, at times, I felt I was watching a pastiche of the TV show. This movie, based on the book Badman by Clair Huffaker, was directed by Burt Kennedy. It was filmed in 1967, runs 101 minutes and was produced by Universal Studios. Set in and around Emmett, New Mexico, the movie was actually filmed in Durango, Mexico.

Starring John Wayne as Taw Jackson and Kirk Douglas as Lomax, The War Wagon is the quintessential buddy movie. As one character says to another, "A beautiful thing to see--friendship." Taw is a rancher framed for a crime and sent to prison so a rival could get control of the gold on his land. He has many attributes of Hannibal Heyes.

 Lomax is a gunfighter with scruples who ultimately sides with Taw in his quest to recover the gold that was stolen from him. Lomax resembles Kid Curry in many ways but there is one important difference: Lomax is the safe-cracker in this partnership. There is a lot of great banter between these two characters. Robert Walker, Jr. plays Billy Hyatt, an explosives expert whose character reminds me of Kyle.

Two actors who had multiple guest starring roles on ASJ appeared in The War Wagon. Keenan Wynn (Charlie Utley in Stagecoach Seven; Horace Wingate in Dreadful Sorry, Clementine; Artie Gorman in What Happened at the XST?) played a grumpy old codger who becomes part of the gang Taw assembles. He is immediately recognizable and even wears red underwear like he did on ASJ.
Joanna Barnes (Janet in How to Rob a Bank in One Hard Lesson and Mrs. Hanley in Miracle at Santa Marta) is Lola, a card dealer in a saloon; appearing about one hour into the movie, she looks a lot softer here than in ASJ.

Two other actors who appeared on ASJ also are in The War Wagon: Boyd "Red" Morgan (Augie Helms in The Fifth Victim) and Hal Needham in two uncredited roles (one of the Devil's Hole Gang members in Wrong Train to Brimstone and Duke in The McCreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone).

ASJ episodes the movie reminded me of are, listed sequentially as the plot of The War Wagon develops: The Bounty Hunter; Six Strangers at Apache Springs; The Mcreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone; The McCreedy Bust; How to Rob a Bank in One Hard Lesson; Wrong Train to Brimstone; The Long Chase. Sometimes it is an entire scene and sometimes it is just a line or two that makes the connection for me. In one instance, it is a prop--a safe that is cracked, using nitro by the way, has the name "Pierce Mining Company" on it. Could this be the precursor to the Pierce & Hamilton line of safes? The ending of The War Wagon is very ASJ-like as well.

There are three bonus features and all are worth watching. The first one is production notes about the making of The War Wagon. It includes a very interesting fact about Keenan Wynn. The second bonus feature gives biographies of John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Kennedy. I learned that Kirk Douglas attended St. Lawrence University, just like Pete Duel! A theatrical trailer for the movie is the last bonus feature and it includes an oral description of the film by John Wayne, which is pretty interesting.

Watch The War Wagon and draw your own conclusion as to whether it had any influence on the television show that was produced by the same studio only a few years later!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Escort West

If Last of the Mohicans were transported about one hundred years into the future, it might look like Escort West. This 1959 black and white film stars Victor Mature as Ben Lassiter, an ex-Confederate soldier traveling with his daughter in 1865 who, because his wife/her mother has died, are going to Oregon to live with the girl’s aunt.

At a waystation, they encounter two sisters, who do not get along, and an Army detail that is escorting them to California, where one sister is going to be married. Naturally, the Army soldiers and the sisters, who are from Boston, take an instant dislike to the “rebel,” as they call him.

Several guest stars on ASJ were in Escort West. Noah Beery (the sheriff in Something to Get Hung About) and Slim Pickens (Mike the bartender in Exit from Wickenburg and three sheriffs in The Man Who Murdered Himself, The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, The Strange Fate of Conrad Meyer Zulick) play two of the soldiers. Slim Pickens was easily recognized, although his voice didn’t have as pronounced a twang as it did in ASJ. Noah Beery was also recognizable, albeit not as easily.

X Brands (one of the poker players in The Biggest Game in the West and Roberts in McGuffin) plays a renegade Modoc Indian leader, and underneath all the makeup and a wig, I couldn’t identify him at all. Leo Gordon (Ebenezer in Smiler with a Gun) was also one of the soldiers and I couldn’t identify him, either; additionally, he is credited as one of the three writers of the film.

When Lassiter discovers the women after their party has been attacked by Indians, he ends up taking on the responsibility of escorting the two sisters on their journey. An injured African-American soldier tells them about an Army payroll they were carrying and after locating it, together they all resume their trek west. It was not clear to me why the Army had split up but for some reason they did and Escort West cuts back and forth between Lassiter and his group and the soldiers, who are trapped by the Indians in a canyon.

Many adventures ensue before they all finally reunite. There is lots of action, some suspense, a little romance, and betrayal as the movie reaches its climax. There is also a scene with a rattlesnake, which is even sillier than the scene in High Lonesome Country when Kid wrestles with the cougar. Other than that, at 75 minutes, Escort West was an enjoyable diversion.