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Train Robbers, The

Warner Bros. // PG // May 3, 2005
List Price: $14.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 5, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The unusualness of The Train Robbers pushes what might have been standard John Wayne fare to somewhat above average. Rightly described by Leonard Maltin as a "chamber Western" of the type writer-director Burt Kennedy used to make with Randolph Scott in the late 1950s, the picture opens strong, finishes grandly, and at just 92 minutes never wears out its welcome. It's unique and imaginative, derivative and routine, sometimes all at once, but overall it's a success. Even non-fans of Wayne might enjoy its lean, uncluttered story.

Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret) is the widow of a train robber who buried $500,000 in gold in the Mexican desert, and hires gunman Lane (John Wayne) to retrieve it so she can clear her husband's name. With the promise of a $50,000 reward, and aware that at least seven survivors of the robbery will be after the gold, too, Lane teams up with old-time pals Grady (Rod Taylor), Jesse (Ben Johnson), and Sam (Jerry Gatlin), while Grady brings in young guns Cal (Christopher George) and Ben (Bobby Vinton). This magnificent seven - was this maybe a rejected script for that series? - cross over into Mexico, and soon as many as 40 riders, "every two-bit gunman in the territory" says Lane, are on their tail, as well as a mysterious stranger (Ricardo Montalban) watching the race to the gold from afar.

The picture starts out extremely well. Under an interesting title design by Wayne Fitzgerald, the film opens in a deserted Liberty, Texas, where various characters ride into town to meet the train carrying Mrs. Lowe and Lane. There's no music here, indeed, none for the first 17 minutes, rather like Once Upon a Time in the West, and like that film there's a striking use of Western iconography: hotel, saloon, blowing dust, the jingle of spurs, etc.

Later in the picture is a long sequence in the desert, among the remains of a skeletal-like five-car train half-buried in the sand. Lane and his party decide to make a stand at the ruins, and the image of the rotting locomotive, its caboose, and so forth, is truly inspired, and looks magnificent in William H. Clothier's Panavision frame. The film's literally explosive climax is exciting, and its little epilogue a real joy, though it really runs counter to what we've seen up to that point.

Except for a short exchange of Spanish near the end, there are only eight speaking parts, one of those just barely. The riders chasing Mrs. Lowe, Lane and his men are seen from a distance, and about the only other character seen up close is a bartender who has no lines. This device certainly keeps things intimate, but is awkward and forced. The town where the story begins and ends has a hotel, saloon, and other buildings but no people apparently. In another village a baby is heard crying, but no people are seen, at least not clearly so.

Admirably, Kennedy tries to give even minor characters like Ben and Sam some personality. Most of Lane's back-story comes in a series of nicely-delivered, wistful monologues by Ben Johnson's Jesse: Lane, Grady, and Jesse had been at the Battle of Vicksburg, and were the only survivors of an attempt to take a hill there. Jesse reveals that Lane was married but that his wife died. "We climbed that hill together, too," he says.

Lane's quiet, patriarchal scenes with Cal and Ben, young gunfighters who "haven't made up their minds which side of the law they're on" affords Wayne several sincerely played, father figure moments that exemplify his natural, powerful screen presence.

Ann-Margret's character is attracted to Lane but, as Wayne says in one of his most memorable lines, "I have a saddle older than you." She's fine in only her second Western (her first was 1966's Stagecoach, a remake of the 1939 film that made Wayne a star). There are some outrageous bits of cheesecake involving her constantly wet, ever-shrinking shirt, but few would complain about this.

Technically, the film is handsomely produced. The smaller-scale cast and limited locations must have helped; it looks less cheap than a some of Wayne's other '70s films do. Albert Whitlock provided several outstanding matte paintings, and essentially created a visually resplendent lightning storm.

Video & Audio

The Train Robbers suffers greatly when panned-and-scanned. Happily, Warner Home Video's DVD preserves the original Panavision photography and is 16:9 anamorphically enhanced. The image is bright with good color (original prints by Technicolor). The mono sound is typical of that era, but clean and clear. An alternate French track is available, with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Extra Features

John Wayne: Working with a Western Legend is a new featurette (oddly presented in 4:3 LBX format), featuring interviews with stuntmen Jerry Gatlin (who also plays Sam), Terry Leonard, and Dean Smith. They discuss the Western genre, Wayne, and Ann-Margaret, among other things in this 10-minute segment. The absence of Ann-Margret and Rod Taylor is felt, but it's a nice little piece otherwise. Wayne Train is a vintage featurette that in 1973 probably ran once between the end of some CBS Sunday Night Movie and the 11 o'clock news. Though it offers brief glimpses of the cast and Burt Kennedy on location, it has no interviews and is of little interest. It's full frame and runs four short minutes.

The final extra is a Wayne Trailer Gallery, with original theatrical trailers for Tall in the Saddle, Fort Apache (1948), Blood Alley, The Sea Chase (both 1955), The Train Robbers, Cahill: United States Marshall (1973), and McQ (1974). The trailer for The Train Robbers is 16:9 encoded and has text but may be missing narration, as it's dull as dishwater without it.

Parting Thoughts

Wayne's '70s Westerns are a mixed bag, but on average were more ambitious than the ones he made in the 1960s. It's not quite a last hurrah, but it is a good, above-average Western with much to recommend it.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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