19 October 2006 | aimless-46
A Subtle (but Fun) Parody of Traditional Western Movie Conventions
I didn't like the "War Wagon" when it was first released, I found it rather silly and vaguely offensive. The problem was me, I was not ready to recognize, let alone relate to, a subtle parody of the western genre. I should have been more receptive because in the mid-60s a huge amount of genre parody began to appear on television ("Batman", 'Wild Wild West", "F- Troop", "Get Smart"), which could be traced back to gently tongue-in-cheek series like "Maverick" and "Zorro".
"Cat Ballou" (1965) was the first feature length parody of Western genre clichés. But its parody elements were obvious, even if you were not that familiar with the conventions of the Western genre you could recognize exaggerations and revisions. In addition, up to this point John Wayne films had given the Western genre only very traditional treatments.
But "The War Wagon" was only the first example of director Burt Kennedy's tweaking of the genre. He would follow it up with "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969), "Hannie Caulder" (1971), and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" (1971). Wayne would toy with parodic elements two years later with "True Grit", and would stay much less traditional with the remainder of his westerns.
"The War Wagon" is also a genre hybrid as western is mixed with buddy picture and big heist movie. Taw (John Wayne) recruits an old enemy Lomax (Kirk Douglas) as he seeks revenge on a ruthless mine owner (Bruce Cabot) who not only framed and sent to him prison, but appropriated his ranch and personal possessions after a huge gold strike was discovered on ranch property (here we go with the exaggeration-the only things missing are stealing Taw's wife, adopting his children, and leaving his toilet seat up). Cabot transports his gold in a "Wild Wild West" inspired armored wagon.
The interplay between Wayne and Douglas (who always seems right on the verge of accepting Cabot's standing offer of $12,000 to kill Wayne) is clever and sarcastic, working with the many exaggerated elements to provide the film's considerable humor.
"The War Wagon" finds Wayne on the wrong side of established authority, for at least the third time as his Ethan Edwards character in "The Searchers" also operated well outside the law and Quirt Evans in "Angel and the Badman" had to be bad enough that he could be reformed by Gail Russell.
Howard Keel plays the civilized Indian sidekick mostly for comic relief and the characters actually demonstrate an awareness of the movie context when they self-reflexively (deliberately drawing attention to their playing characters in a movie) refer to a tactic as an old Indian trick. Ultimately the joke (and the irony) is on Wayne and Douglas, as their seemingly one-sided deal with the Indians (a few blankets in exchange for their participation) causes the Indians to end up with most the rewards.
"The War Wagon's" understated parody style would inspire John Huston ("The Life & Times Of Judge Roy Bean") and George Roy Hill ("The Sting"); and of course many others.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.