The Wackiest Wagon Train In The West

Directors: Jack Arnold, Earl Bellamy, Bruce Bilson, Oscar Rudolph   
Bob Denver, Forrest Tucker, Ivor Francis

From the time after birth when we start to walk and talk, and start thinking of things in a more rational method, the world seems like it's a magical place. It seems to be a world where your mother and father are the wisest and kindest parents a child could have, and also a place where anything can go your way. But slowly and gradually, this viewpoint gets clouded by doubt coming from the harsh realities that inevitably happen to everyone. It probably starts during the day when with your mother at a supermarket, she refuses your request to get you a chocolate bar. And continues when you ask other things of your parents, like why is the sky blue. But it's not just within your family that a child finds they can't always get what they want. It comes from various outside sources as well. Sooner or later, a child will find from dealing with outside sources what it's like to be let down, and will know the meaning of the term "rip-off". A friend of mine once told me a personal story about such an experience. When she was a child in Japan, she was a big fan of a certain animated cartoon broadcast on TV. One day, she learned that a character from this cartoon show was going to appear at a children's festival. When her mother agreed to take her to this festival, she was naturally excited and couldn't wait to see her animated idol on stage. So with the hundreds of other children at the festival, she sat in her chair with great anticipation. Eventually, the curtains opened, only to reveal an adult in a costume resembling the cartoon character. Even at a young age, my friend realized right then what a rip-off was.

I have suffered from my share of cons and rip-offs in my life. Naturally, I try my best to have a lifestyle that will reduce the risk of being rip-offed as much as possible. But I don't think that anyone can reduce the risk to zero - there are too many rip-offs out there that you can't completely avoid. Even in something seemingly innocent as movies. When I was a child, I used to think that every movie was a magical experience. When I subsequently saw Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo, doubt started to creep in my mind, and when I later saw Herbie Goes Bananas, I finally knew just what being ripped-off was like. Even after experiences like that, I will admit that I still have a big appetite for movies. But I've learned that you've got to be careful, you have to do some research beforehand to weed out the bad movies that are offered to you. In this review, I am warning you about a certain kind of movie to be aware of. That kind of movie is television programming reedited to resemble something like a movie. When the TV show The Man From UNCLE first appeared, MGM edited several two-part episodes together and released them to theaters overseas. They even released at least one of these "movies" to theaters in America. Western TV series have been the victim of this con as well. The '60s western show Hondo had two episodes edited together and was released overseas as Hondo And The Apaches. Two episodes of The Virginian - one with guest star Lee Marvin, the other with guest star Charles Bronson - were edited together and released as The Meanest Men In The West. In an attempt to make the mishmash make sense, the narrative had to do things like state a middle-aged Bronson was playing a character in his early 20s.

By now, you have probably guessed that the movie I'm reviewing here - The Wackiest Wagon Train In The West - is another example of those kind of movie rip-offs, and you are correct. In the 1970s, syndication of new TV dramas and sitcoms not seen on prime time on the big The Wackiest Wagon Train In The Westthree networks was the rage. In 1973, there was one such TV show syndicated, a sitcom called Dusty's Trail, which only lasted for one season. But a few years later, some enterprising individuals saw the possible further exploitation of the episodes, possibly due to the fact that two of the show's stars - Bob Denver and Forrest Tucker - were still well known from older shows in syndication. So they edited four of the episodes together and released it to theaters as The Wackiest Wagon Train In The West. Incredibly, it did decent business - I remember reading an ad in an old issue of Variety boasting of the grosses in certain territories. I wonder if the audiences felt ripped-off, not just for passing TV as a movie, but for another reason that I will bring up later in this review. Anyway, here's a plot synopsis of the, ahem, "movie". The setting is the wild west, around the time that gold was found in California. The events of the movie take place around a small wagon train making its way across the west. The passengers include an older and wealthy couple of good breeding, a smart and resourceful young man who knows about the latest technology like telegraphs, and two sexy young women. Leading the wagon train is a seasoned wagon master (Tucker), who is constantly frustrated by his well-meaning but bumbling and dim-witted sidekick (Denver.)

I can hear many of you out there, after reading about those characters, saying something to the effect of, "Hey, this sounds very familiar." And all of you are right. This enterprise is a blatant rip-off of the classic comedy show Gilligan's Island, not just because Bob Denver is also in this cast, but also by having the same basic characters. Actually, I'm not sure if it's fair to call this a rip-off. You see, the producer and creator of Gilligan's Island (Sherwood Schwartz, who also made The Brady Bunch) was also the producer and creator of the Dusty's Trail TV series that this "movie" is derived from. He probably thought that if the same basic idea worked once, it would probably work again. But since the TV show only lasted for one season, you can probably guess it didn't work very well a second time. You'll get a confirmation of your guess if you actually sit down to watch The Wackiest Wagon Train In The West. It's not just that the entertainment from the source is inept; in making this "movie", new kinds of problems come. Take the first scene of the movie, right after the opening credits. The movie jumps right in the middle of things, and seems to think we already know all of the characters and their situation. Apparently, the Dusty's Trail TV either lacked an opening episode that properly introduced the characters and their situation, or the people editing the episodes together simply decided to start with an episode that appeared later in the series' short run. This first episode was also a poor choice to begin with because the characters of the wealthy couple don't really show up until their sudden appearance halfway through this first story, provoking the audience in saying, "Who? What? Where did these people come from?"

Actually, the remainder of the editing of the four episodes together is mostly better than you might think. There's actually only one fade-to-black moment, no doubt intended by the original TV episode to stop the action momentarily in order for a commercial break. But all that effort to make the flow of the production feel like a movie turns out to be for nothing, because (as expected) when the last of the four episodes (oh, I mean "stories") ends, the "movie" abruptly ends, leaving the fates of the seven characters up in the air. There are other problems, like how several times the number of horses the characters have changes from story to story (and sometimes even from shot to shot), but I think you get the idea how messy things got from editing four TV episodes into one "movie". Next, I'll get into the production values. No doubt because the show was syndicated and not picked up by a major American TV network, the budget was lower than average. This probably explains why quite a bit of the show was filmed on a studio lot, even during the scenes where the action is supposedly taking place outdoors. This would have been extremely obvious and distracting for TV audiences even back in 1973. There is also a Native American village that we never get a good look at, no doubt because they could only afford to rent a few props. And don't get me started on the "bear" that plays a role in the first story, since it is so tacky that it makes gorilla costumes made in B movies during the 1940s look like the creations of Stan Winston.

It's then amazing that despite all those problems I've listed, The Wackiest Wagon Train In The West still ends up being a hilarious and witty enterprise. Just kidding. I admit I did smirk a few times at some gags, like when Denver's character reads the welcome sign at the edge of a town that also states, "Pop. 114", he wonders, "I wonder how old Mom is." Other than a few isolated moments such as this, the humor is at best third-rate Gilligan's Island slapstick, and at worst is gags that would have seemed hoary and lame even to vaudeville entertainers of the 1920s. When Denver holds the reins of the stagecoach's horses and yells giddy-up, you know that he will have forgotten to fasten the horses to the stagecoach and will be pulled off the stagecoach. When he and his friends find a telegraph machine, he states, "Oh boy! A telegraph! I mean a real telegraph! (Pause.) What's a telegraph?" The movie even brings up the tired one liner about giving someone a fair trial before hanging them. You might think that at least kids (real young kids) might find this movie funny. But it's not ideal entertainment for more than just the lame humor. Although the other parts of the movie seemed aimed at family audiences, the third story involves the wagon party being threatened by two bandits who make it pretty clear they want to rape the party's two young women. Try explaining that to you kids, or explaining about transvestitism when Denver and Tucker subsequently dress up as women to fool the bandits, who proceed to fondle and kiss Denver and Tucker when they are captured. While witnessing low points like this in the movie, I wondered if it would have been better if they had focused on the wackiest wagon train in the east. New Yorkers are more sophisticated than the west coast, so it may very well have worked better.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check Amazon for availability of original episodes of "Dusty's Trail"

See also: The Bang Bang Kid, Evil Roy Slade, Rustlers' Rhapsody