The first surprise one finds with War of the Wildcats, with John Wayne as a cowboy overseeing an oil-drilling operation on Indian land, is that War of the Wildcats is not its original title. The movie, in fact, was first released as In Old Oklahoma in December 1943. When Republic Pictures reissued it in June 1950 they opted to rename it War of the Wildcats, which may also have been its working title while it was in production. From here it gets a bit murky, but it appears the movie was also usually shown on television under the Wildcats title, as was its only previous home video release, a 1998 VHS tape.
Still, nowhere on the packaging is In Old Oklahoma ever mentioned, creating unnecessary confusion. I'd never heard of War of the Wildcats before but through various John Wayne biographies knew of In Old Oklahoma. Olive Films' high-def transfer, utilizing a composite of film elements, sources War of the Wildcats titles, though that title card acknowledges the earlier In Old Oklahoma name, too.
Following John Wayne's success with Stagecoach, Republic Pictures didn't quite know what to do with their suddenly-hot commodity. They loaned him out to other studios as much as they kept him busy on Republic product, though studios like Paramount and RKO had just as much trouble finding the right vehicles for Wayne as Republic did. His early â€˜40s Republic movies generally aren't very good. They aspire to A-picture classiness but they usually don't work as star vehicles and tend to come of as rather turgid. Lady for a Night (1942), for instance, is primarily a vehicle for fading Warner Bros. star Joan Blondell, set in a kind of B-movie, Gone with the Wind romanticized Old South. In Old California (also 1942), with Wayne playing a Boston pharmacist seeking his fortune out west, is somewhat better. Besides the similar title In Old California likewise co-stars Albert Dekker as the heavy.
In Old Oklahoma stars Wayne as cowboy Dan Somers, who in 1906 Oklahoma hitches a ride aboard the private train car belonging to oil magnate Jim Gardner (Dekker). Gardner, at that moment, is trying to seduce Catherine Allen (Martha Scott), a schoolteacher moving out west following the notoriety of the salacious romance novel she's written.
In Sepulpa, Gardner ostentatiously throws his weight around, threatening a farmer (Byron Foulger) he cheated out of his oil-rich land. Gardner is anxious to further expand his empire into Indian land, but when pressed Dan warns Chief Big Tree (Robert Warwick) that Gardner's 12.5% royalty offer is a "sucker's deal." Instead, the Native Americans offer Dan the oil-drilling lease on their land. He's reluctant, but the townsfolk, including old-timer "Desprit" Dean (George "Gabby" Hayes) and alcoholic driller Richardson (Grant Withers), fed up with Gardner's unfair business practices, urge Dan to take on the job.
In Washington, President Teddy Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer, squinty-eyed and hammy) surprises all by personally approving Dan's four-month lease: Dan had served in his Rough Riders. "How did you manage to get to the top of San Juan Hill ahead of us?" Roosevelt asks the cowboy. Nevertheless, Gardner will be granted the lease if Dan's unable to deliver within that timeframe.
Gardner's personal assistant, the Cherokee Kid (Paul Fix), goes to work for Dan but clearly is up to no good. The whole drilling works spectacularly explodes, leaving Dan and his crew sitting on a fortune in oil with no way to reach it. What can they do?
The novelty of the 1906 setting is interesting, with Dan and Desprit very much 19th-century cowboys while Gardner, symbolizing burgeoning technologies and corporate greed, drives an early (and unreliable) automobile. The plot turns on oil, which virtually overnight will radically and permanently alter the Western landscape. As with Sony's recent MOD of The Big Gusher (1950), a cheaper film with a similar premise, there's a naivetÃ© about drilling that from a 2013 perspective makes In Old Oklahoma occasionally amusing. Around the drill site Catherine exclaims, almost orgasmically, "It smells of life and love and freedom!" "Well," replies Dan, "to me it just smells."
Once underway the oil drilling adventures of Dan and his companions are fairly entertaining, but it takes a long time, more than a third of the picture, to get to that point. In Old Oklahoma really gets bogged down by its Dan-Catherine-Gardner love triangle, with Dan needlessly angry at Catherine, irrationally questioning her loyalty to the great cause.
Martha Scott, best remembered today as Charlton Heston's mother in both The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), was a good actress but she's not really right for this kind of film, failing to generate any sparks with either Dekker or Wayne. The movie compensates for this somewhat by its strong supporting cast, especially the welcome presence of Gabby Hayes as Dan's old friend, Withers as a driller who goes on the wagon to help everyone, Dale Evans as a dance hall performer, and Fix as Gardner's henchman.
Video & Audio
In its original full-frame, 1.37:1 format In Old Oklahoma/War of the Wildcats generally looks very good, with straight cuts in crisp black-and-white with more than adequate blacks and contrast. The War of the Wildcats title elements are in fairly rough shape, and several times there are 20-second or so bits where the original film elements were obviously missing and replaced by greatly inferior secondary sources. But these are very brief and help restore the film to its full 102-minute running time, as well as serve as a reminder of just how bad these movies once looked on TV and VHS. The Region A disc has good audio, English only with no subtitle options and Extra Features.
Bigger and more colorful than the usual Republic Western but overstuffed with superfluous elements, In Old Oklahoma/War of the Wildcats isn't bad but neither is it prime John Wayne. Still, for its vastly improved video transfer, this one is still Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.