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Friday, March 28, 2014

The Train Robbers (1973)




Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: John Wayne, Ann-Margret, Ben Johnson, Rod Taylor, Christopher George, Ricardo Montalban, Bobby Vinton, Jerry Gatlin

In the opening scene a man called Lane (John Wayne himself) arrives in the town of Liberty, Texas by train, accompanied by a woman, a real lady, who hired him for a job. Lane has asked a few old friends to assist him and they are waiting for him at the train station. Men waiting for their boss on a railway station: it could be a reference to High Noon, but the scene is filmed in the style of Once upon a Time in the West, with a lot of dust, prolonged silences, a creaky water mill and close-ups of faces and hand guns. It's a nice, ironic scene, John Wayne, the Duke, in the final stages of his career, making a wink at Mr. Leone.

Things quickly change after this opening scene. Big John confirms his authority, the lady changes clothes (and turns into the buxomous Ann-Margret), all mount their horses and off they go. Ann-Margret is the widow of an outlaw and she hired Wayne to retrieve the gold - worth half a million dollars - that her late husband has stolen in a train robbery and buried in a place only known to her; she wants to return the gold to the Railroad, in order to clear her husband's name and give their son a fresh start. Wayne and his men are attracted by the reward of $50,000 ("It ain't half a million but it ain't stolen either"), but a mysterious group of riders is hot on their trail and there's also a well-dressed man, who's having an eye on both groups ...

The Train Robbers is reminiscent of the series of low-budget (now classic) westerns director Kennedy scripted for the couple Bud Boetticher-Randolph Scott, but the atmosphere is more light-hearted, and the emphasis is on cameraderie rather than tensions within the group. Occasionally it feels a little like a caper movie in the style of that other Italian director, Enzo G. Castellari; the surprising twist ending - the lady having the better of all these tough guys - could easily have been the icing on the cake of a sharp-witted Castellari movie.

But there's more ... The Train Robbers can also be interpreted as a PG version of the R-rated The Wild Bunch: some visuals of men riding through the desert evoke similar scenes in Peckinpah's movie and there are also several similarities on script level; it is a chase movie, many sets are set around the camp fire and - like William Holden's Pike Bishop - John Wayne's group leader delivers a few speeches, to boast moral or teach his men a lesson. John Wayne had publicly criticized Peckinpah's movie for 'destroying the western myth' and his speeches echo those of William Holden, but these guys are no thieves and murderers, they're honorable men who even try to spare the life of a mule and wouldn't ever rob a train unless they're pushed to the limit. Well ... they are.

With its vistas of rippling sand dunes and the image of a deserted train, half-buried in the sand - as if it were a carcass of a deceased animal - the movie has a glorious look. At the same time the compositions are austere, almost Bressonian as some critic noted (1), the town of Liberty, Texas consisting of no more than a couple of buildings, far apart. The riders chasing Lane and his men are seen from a distance, remain anonymous, and the identity of the mysterious stranger is only revealed in the final scene. Compared to the revisionist movies that were in vogue in the early Seventies, The Train Robbers must have felt simplistic; it was largely overlooked and the few critics who were more receptive, saw it as good old-fashioned entertainment. Roger Ebert called it 'pretty good in a workmanlike manner' (2).

In recent years the movie has received a couple of more favorable reviews; it's not the greatest of westerns, but in retrospect those winks at Leone and Peckinpah work better and so does the twist ending. Many thought it was stupid and destroyed the mood of this movie 'full of understanding, fellowship and reconciliation' (3). Instead of destroying anything, it rather illustrates the idea that not only those winks at others, but also the movie itself should be taken with a pinch of salt. Like in (the far more violent) Big Jake, John Wayne is poking fun at himself, or rather: his screen persona of the indestructible, unmovable hero. He's more vulnerable than ever and his scenes with Ann-Margret seem to underline the idea that the only thing that can beat an unbeatable man, is a woman.


Notes: 

(1) DVD Beaver, John Wayne, Legendary Hero Collection, DVD Review
(2) Roger Ebert, The Train Robbers - http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-train-robbers-1973 
(3) Roger Greenspun, Train Robbers, Burt Kennedy keeps it traditional, The New York Times, February 8, 1973

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