By the time John Wayne made The Train Robbers in 1973, his career was drawing to a close, with his final film, The Shootist coming in 1976.
By the 1970’s, westerns were going out of style in Hollywood,but the’Duke’, forever associated with that genre,could still draw in audiences.
For some,The Train Robbers is the worst ever Wayne western,,uninspired,boring,forgettable.
To others,( well,at least one person on IMDB) it’s a movie even Howard Hawks would have liked to claim as his own!
I take the view that The Train Robbers is a good western which deserves to be seen for what it is – a throwback to the classic era of the western – the 1950’s. ( And of course you can dispute my contention about that decade.)
It’s written and directed by Burt Kennedy, who wrote four of the best Randolph Scott 50’s westerns – Seven Men From Now, Commanche Station,The Tall T and Ride Lonesome.
It’s as if Kennedy knew Wayne might not be in the saddle much longer and he chose a story around the mythic western character John Wayne had become.
And maybe Wayne trusted Kennedy and appreciated the story of a small group of people battling the odds in unfriendly territory against a nameless enemy.
There are only eight roles in Train Robbers,including the mysterious character played by Ricardo Montalban who doesn’t utter a word till the very last scene.
Wayne is Lane,an ex-army man. Rod Taylor and Ben Johnson are Grady and Jesse. They rode with Lane in the Civil War. None of them are young any more,but Grady and Jesse are happy to follow Lane again.
Lane has persuaded a young widow, Mrs.Lowe (Ann Margret) to lead them to a fortune in gold that her late husband stole from Wells Fargo. Mrs. Lowe knows where the gold is hidden,in the Mexican desert. She wants to return it to the rightful owners so her young son won’t grow up thinking his father was a thief.
Lane and his men will collect the reward of $50,000.
Also in the group are Bobby Vinton,Christopher George and Jerry Gatlin, as Ben, Cal and Sam, young guns willing to follow Lane if he leads them to a big reward.
My only casting complaint is Ann Margret who just looks too modern for the western setting. I can think of several actresses I would have preferred,all of whom were in their 40’s and 50’s and therefore,probably considered too old – Angie Dickinson,Vera Miles and Yvonne de Carlo – all of whom had worked previously with John Wayne. And there’s Anne Baxter,Virginia Mayo, Katy Jurado,Dorothy Malone,Eleanor Parker – all western veterans.
With minor plot tweaks, the character of Mrs. Lowe could easily have been an older woman.
For the first fifteen minutes of the film, there is no music. The group assemble at a windswept prairie train stop at Liberty,Texas and only when Lane says, “Let’s go to Mexico” does Dominic Frontiere’s music begin.
Lane realised that the men who were with Mrs. Lowe’s husband on the robbery will be after the gold too. As Lane says, “This much money up for grabs,likely they’ve got every two bit gunman in the territory along.”
And he’s right. A group of twenty to thirty men start following them, and what’s interesting and unusual is that these men are never identified; they are generally only seen in longshot, just a mass of riders with only one goal, to get the gold.
At one point, Lane and the others have crossed a river, and their followers are in sight. Lane says, “Cal,you and Sam hang back. Anybody starts crossing that river,baptise them.”
There’s a great shot of the gunslingers on the desert horizon as they finally catch up with Lane.
Another memorable looking scene ( cinematography by William H. Clothier) is the spot in the desert where the gold is buried. It’s an old wreck of a train, half buried in the sand, with cars and caboose turned upside down.
Two of the best written characters are Grady and Jesse ( Rod Taylor and Ben Johnson.) Grady and Jesse have ridden together for ten years and they look out for each other.
Later,when they await an attack from the riders, Grady says, “You and me,Jesse,we can’t get old. What the hell use are we gonna be to anybody in a rockin’ chair. All I’m saying is,don’t get old. You’ll live to regret it.”
My favorite line of dialogue comes near the end, (though it wouldn’t have worked with an older actress playing Mrs. Lowe.)
Lane and Mrs Lowe are talking and he says, “You can tell the railroad we’ll drift by and pick up the reward.” She says, “That’s all you do,isn’t it,Mr Lane – drift – doesn’t seem like much of a life.”
She suggests that he come back on the train with her ,but he stops her,saying, “I got a saddle that’s older than you are,Mrs. Lowe.”
Lane and his men end up telling Mrs.Lowe to collect the reward, and that’s when the twist ending involving Ricardo Montalban kicks in.I love the surprise ending.
So,maybe you’ll give The Train Trobbers a first, or second look. It’s one I can watch again and again.
I was writing this post when I read of Rod Taylor’s death . So I dedicate this piece to Rod, a fine actor.
For more contrary opinions about movies, check out the Blogathon,CONTRARY TO POPULAR OPINION at SisterCelluloid.com