"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Train Robbers (Warner Bros, 1973)

The (not so great) train robbers

The series of big commercial Westerns John Wayne made in the 70s were  successful at the box-office and have remained very popular. When they talk about Wayne, many people think of him in this way. Chisum, Rio Lobo, Big Jake, Cahill, US Marshal were all big earners. And they weren’t bad either. No one would pretend they were of the quality of, say, The Shootist or True Grit, great movies of Wayne’s later life, but they were solid, actionful Westerns with high production values.
. .
The Train Robbers, though, was the least of them.

In many ways it had some great cards in its hand: for one thing, it was written and directed by Burt Kennedy. That should have assured a tightly-plotted, snappy-action story with some good one-liners. It didn’t. Then there was Technicolor Panavision photography by William Clothier, and indeed the Durango locations are finely shot. But looking good doesn’t alone make it a top-drawer Western.
 Burt directed, though with Duke on the set it needed kid gloves

It starts very well: we are in a ratty train halt that looks like a run-down Hadleyville. One Upon A Time-like, we have no music, only Ben Johnson waitin’ on a train to the accompaniment of squeaks from the wind pump and wind-blown dust. It must be said that while Leone overdid it by miles, this take is pale in comparison. Amusing, however, how Leone quotes old Westerns in an Italian way and then commercial Waynery quotes it right back. Still, an encouraging opening. Johnson is there and that augurs well. But it’s all downhill from there, fans.
Kennedy quotes Leone right back at him
Ben seems tired (he was only 55). His partner Rod Taylor tells him in the script not to get old but he doesn’t appear to have listened. Taylor (who even looked Australian!) is unconvincing and Ann-Margret, who should have stuck to Elvis Presley pictures, acts drunk dreadfully badly and doesn’t do much better when sober. Wayne is OK in his tough-guy ex-soldier part, bossing everyone about in his toupée. Really, the acting isn’t up to much.
Much of the movie is taken up with the party (which numbers the mystical Western total of 7) going from Texas to Mexico and therefore moving from right to left on the screen (all Westerns with cowboys going to Mexico did this: see The Professionals or The Magnificent Seven, as examples). And then in the second half they go back to Texas and so ride from left to right.

There was a novelization

One curious feature is that the bad guy (Ricardo Montalban) remains anonymous and entirely silent until the last two minutes of the movie and his twenty gunmen are faceless horsemen, extras with no characters at all. The action is limited to a gunfight in Mexico and a bit of dynamite throwing, and a rather good blaze at the end. No one actually robs a train (though the gang ride off to do that at the end). There’s a trick ending. A bit of a yawn, really.
Western buffs will maybe smile slightly at one thing, though. Wayne is named Mr. Lane and Ann-Margret is called Mrs. Lowe. Batjac, founded in 1953, made much of Wayne’s 1953 Hondo (rightly, it was a fine film) and later adapted it for TV. Hondo’s surname in Hondo is, of course, Lane and he rides off into the sunset with Mrs. Lowe (although Ms. Ann-Margret is no Geraldine Page).
Watch it. Well, you gotta. But don’t expect too much.



  1. I've got a fondness for this picture. Maybe it's there still seems to be something left of the warmth of Kennedy's writing in the Boetticher pictures. Something I've wondered about for years is the way he quotes or nearly quotes from Hondo in these films. There's a direct quote in Commanche Station when the bad guy says to the woman "You're a good cook. A woman should be a good cook. I'm a good cook myself." I think cutting off a difficult conversation with a sharp "You cook good coffee" is in Hondo, Seven Men From Now and at least one of the others. And the names Lane and Lowe recur. But Hondo was written by James Edward Grant. It's as if Kennedy is giving him a nod as a kind of 'thank you'. If anybody knows the answer to this it's going to be you. Did Grant help him out in the early days? Montalban's character in The Train Robbers. I always thought he was a Pinkerton man trailing Mrs Lowe to get the gold back not the head of the bad guy's. He always stays hidden at a safe distance and at one point fires on them to keep the pursuit moving.

    1. Interesting idea. I am quite sure you are right that Kennedy was much influenced by Hondo and yes, themes and even bits of dialogue do recur through the Scott/Boetticher pictures. I don't know, though, how much Kennedy was directly influenced by Grant. Sadly, Mr. Kennedy is no longer with us to ask.