Last Updated on April 24, 2018 by Steve Mayhew
I’m only reviewing the following movie simply because it’s a Western and it has John Wayne in it, although he probably only appears for about two minutes in a film that runs for approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes. So what’s the film?
How the West Was Won (1962)
Wayne plays General Sherman in the Civil War sequence of the film, directed by John Ford. As I’m sure a lot of Duke fans know, this wasn’t the first time Wayne had played the famed Union general. He appeared in a cameo role a few years before in a two-part episode of the Wagon Train tv series, also directed by Ford, and was credited in the cast list as Michael Morris. If memory serves me correctly he only actually appears in silhouette but it was still the man himself.
Wayne’s screen time is taken up convincing General Grant that he shouldn’t resign his command once the battle of Shiloh is over. While all this is going on George Peppard as a Union soldier and Russ Tamblyn as a rebel deserter watch from the side lines. Tamblyn then attempts to shoot Grant, forcing Peppard to kill his new friend with a bayonet. Hannibal Smith gutting Tom Thumb. Now that’s something you don’t get to see every day.
Ford manages to sneak in a couple of his stock company members, Andy Devine and Ken Curtis, into the film as well as a graveside conversing-with-the-dead scene reminiscent of other Ford films such as Young Mr Lincoln and My Darling Clementine. There’s never really enough room for subtlety in these huge overblown Hollywood extravaganzas but personally I think Ford acquits himself very well, as does Wayne in his all-too-short cameo.
This is the first film John Wayne made with director (and son of Victor McLaglen), Andrew V. McLaglen, the duo going on to work together on another four movies, three of them Westerns (to be reviewed at a later date).
The film reunites Duke with Maureen O’ Hara for the first time since The Wings of Eagles and is very loosely based upon The Taming of the Shrew. Now there’s a thought – Wayne does Shakespeare. Could you imagine Duke doing Twelth Night?
‘If music be the food of love – mine’s a medium rare rib-eye steak with a bottle of tequila to wash it down.’ I’d go watch it.
As I implied in my review of North to Alaska (in John Wayne Best Westerns Round Up II) I’m not that comfortable watching Wayne trying to do broad comedy and slapstick so I was fully prepared to not like this movie much, having only seen it once when it was released back in 1963, and remembering not being that impressed the first time around.
I have to admit though that the film is better than I remembered. Being only about 11 years old back then I guess I expected a bit more action – Wayne only fires three shots in the film, two at a couple of pheasants and a blank shot at Patrick Wayne. After all, this is supposed to be a John Wayne Western, right?
Anyway, looking at the film once more with fresh but very much older eyes this epitomises Duke’s high, wide and handsome persona, even if the action is sparse on the ground. There’s also an iconic Wayne moment in the film when he tells Leo Gordon he’s not going to hit him, then changes his mind with the words ‘the Hell I won’t’ before punching Gordon’s lights out – and he gets to call him Pilgrim as well.
The fact that this takes place at the top of a mud pit tells you all you need to know about the comedic nature of the film and, yes, everyone ends up getting knocked headlong into it.
Seeing as this is a James Edward Grant scripted opus, it should come as no surprise that the case for gender equality is not exactly at the forefront of the narrative, particularly when it comes to Wayne’s treatment of Maureen O’Hara, playing his estranged wife, in the sequence at the end of the film.
Still, although the sexual politics of the film is not going to gain too many brownie points from feminists and the politically correct brigade of today, it was probably deemed all clean fun back in the less enlightened early 1960s.
To my thinking the climactic encounter between Wayne and O’Hara is rather too reminiscent of the end of The Quiet Man, the film striving too hard to duplicate the success of their earlier film together. Also, on the assumption that a John Wayne film must on occasion have a musical interlude, Jerry van Dyke and Stephanie Powers are no much for Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. Rio Bravo it isn’t – and it’s definitely not The Quiet Man either – but then to be fair this was only the first time Wayne worked with Andrew McLaglen.
For my money it took until Chisum until they finally made a genuine classic Wayne Western together.
War Wagon (1967)
Watching this film for the first time since I saw it on release back in 1967 I suddenly realised why it was I used to get confused sometime as to which Wayne Western was which.
Here he’s wearing the red shirt and leather waistcoat combo from McLintock before reprising the natty blue shirt and waistcoat from Rio Bravo and Katie Elder. Along with the familiar clothing we get the ubiquitous Bruce Cabot – enjoying a somewhat meatier role this time as the villain – and Bruce Dern in a short-lived role as a gunman wiped out by Kirk Douglas with Wayne gunning down his stand-in, Cliff Roberson, at the same time. No wonder Dern took his time getting his own back in The Cowboys.
The War Wagon is actually quite a good film, firstly due to the script by writer Clair Huffaker, here providing an adaptation of his novel Badman, having previously written the screenplay for another excellent Wayne vehicle, The Comancheros, back in 1960.
Secondly, and I think I’m right in saying this, John Wayne works for the first time with seasoned Western director Burt Kennedy – they went on to do The Train Robbers together a few years later – so all in all it’s a pretty good addition to the Wayne Western canon. Throw in Kirk Douglas as a gun for hire and the film delivers the goods. Not a classic ‘classic’ Duke Western if I’m honest, but still quite watchable.
It’s a few minutes into the film before you find out Duke isn’t one of the bad guys, in fact he’s just got out of jail after being framed by Bruce Cabot, losing his ranch in the process and determined to exact his revenge by stealing the gold from Cabot’s security vehicle of choice, the iron-clad heavily armed war wagon of the title.
Thinking about it there haven’t been that many heist Westerns to speak of – The Great Train Robbery from 1903 and the train robbery sequence from The Wild Bunch are the only ones that spring to mind right now.
Talking of The Wild Bunch it’s good to see Emilio Fernandez, who went on to play the murderous, throat-slitting Mexican drunkard General Mapache in the Peckinpah classic, playing against type here as a mild-mannered Mexican peasant who so impresses Wayne that Duke decides to donate half of the money he steals from the war wagon for Emilio’s village orphanage.
Actually, that’s not quite true. He plays a murderous drunken Mexican bandido who shoots at bottles of tequila placed precariously upon the head of musical star Howard Keel – and that’s a sentence which for so many reasons I thought I’d never end up typing.
I have a cookbook called True Grits which is based around a bunch of recipes loosely associated with John Wayne movies. For The War Wagon the authors have come up with a sushi dish they call the Raw Wagon – don’t ask.
Now, I never actually had the chance to meet John Wayne myself – I tried to one drunken night many years ago when he was staying in Chelsea in a house in Cheyne Walk while over in the UK to film Brannigan (lucky for me he wasn’t home at the time) – but I’m prepared to bet if you ever offered him a plate of Raw Wagon he’d probably tell you he’s killed a man for less. I know I would.
The Undefeated (1969)
I guess by the end of the 60s I’d kind of become all ‘John Wayned’ out so I didn’t get to see a lot of his later films as and when they were released.
As far as The Undefeated goes I’d caught bits of it on tv over the years but it wasn’t up until recently that I actually sat down and watched the film the whole way through. I had great expectations for this movie, bearing in mind it’s directed by Andrew McLaglen, someone perfectly placed to inherit the mantle of directing Westerns from Ford.
His earlier films such as The Way West and Shenandoah certainly showed he had what it takes to be considered a realistic successor to Ford so I was looking forward to finally getting round to watching his second Wayne Western in full.
If there’s a checklist detailing the pre-requisites for a John Wayne cowboy film then someone working for McLaglen certainly covered all the bases. Harry Carey Jr.? Check. Ben Johnson? Check. Bruce Cabot? Goes without saying. John Agar? But of course – although I don’t remember actually seeing him on screen but then maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough.
Throw in Paul Fix, Dub Taylor, Don Collier and of course Cliff Roberson and a decent scriptwriter in James Lee Barratt (Shendandoah) and you’re guaranteed a winner. Or are you?
The movie kicks off quite well with a decently staged civil war sequence – in fact you could be forgiven for thinking that Wayne has wandered onto the set of The Undefeated from the end of The Horse Soldiers, morphing from Colonel John Marlowe in the latter film to Colonel John Henry Thomas – thankfully the middle name of Henry making Wayne’s moniker just about acceptable in polite society.
Then it kind of goes a bit downhill after that. Rock Hudson is perfectly adequate as the leader of a defeated Confederate brigade – cue the traditional scene of the rebels and the union army trying to out-sing each other with their respective national anthems a la Dodge City (and Casablanca come to think of it) – but the attempt to make a serious adult Western is scuppered by the need to include a needless punch-up sequence that doesn’t really add to the story.
There’s also an ill-fated attempt to introduce a liberal element into the story with a young white woman falling for Wayne’s adopted Indian son, Blue Boy. A very young Jan Michael Vincent – or just Michael Vincent as he’s credited here – vies with Blue Boy for the attentions of the lady in question but to my mind this issue is never resolved by the end of the film.
Not that anyone back in the 60s would have been offended by such a storyline. As the critic Roger Ebert points out, the actor playing Blue Boy, one Roman Gabriel, looks about as Indian as ‘one of the Beach Boys’.
Wayne appears to be enjoying himself in his role as ex-soldier turned horse seller, but his statement prior to driving a herd of 3000 horses across the border of ‘Let’s take em’ to Mexico’ just doesn’t compete with ‘Take em’ to Missouri, Matt’.
Dig those crazy sideburns the Dukester sports, though. Very stylish. In terms of late career Wayne Westerns, The Undefeated isn’t as fast-paced or as exciting as The War Wagon for example, but then to be fair Duke was 20 years younger and 10 times faster back in 1949. An adequate Wayne Western at best.