Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Train Robbers (1973)

This John Wayne western should be better than it is. Individual parts of it are notable, but put together, it’s a 90-minute lead-up to a surprise ending. Wayne plays himself in the role his fans love—gruff and no-nonsense but with that disarming grin. 

The all-star cast includes Ben Johnson and Rod Taylor, both at their relaxed best. The hyphenated Ann-Margret provides the required female component. Ricardo Montalban, like someone looking for Fantasy Island, watches from afar and puffs on long cigars.

Plot. This is a Burt Kennedy film, directed from his own script. So the elements are familiar—a long trek across hostile terrain with several men and a woman. This time around, it's an assembled gang of former partners in crime accompanying the woman, who enlists them to retrieve a half million in stolen gold. It is stashed in the desert in an abandoned train locomotive.

Johnson, Guest, Taylor, Wayne, Ann-Margret
Wayne and his gang agree to help her find the gold so she can return it and supposedly clear the family name of a deceased husband, while Wayne and his men collect the reward. An immediate problem as they ride off together is that they are being followed by a troop of riders eager to separate them from the gold once it’s found.

There’s a big shootout when they arrive at the locomotive, and though they thin out the ranks of their pursuers by half and scatter their horses, they still need to get back to civilization. Which happens to be a ghost town with a set of train tracks running through it. The conclusion then comes with a bang—several of them—as dynamite is used to rout the last of the would-be thieves who have been following them. Fire levels several buildings, adding to the nighttime spectacle.

All of this you have seen before in other westerns, and the difference is that a lot of talent has been put
to the task of making this version of the material bigger, flashier, and noisier. Also sexier, as Ann-Margret is persuaded by Wayne to dress so that her curves and points show—thereby discouraging gunfire by those in pursuit. (Meanwhile, you’re thinking, wouldn’t having her wear a dress instead of tight jeans do the job even better?)

Highlights. For me, Ben Johnson is always a pleasure to watch on screen. Born in Oklahoma he comes by his southern-plains talk and mannerisms naturally. He has always been convincing in cowboy roles. Here he gets a good share of the script, including a long scene with Rod Taylor in which they talk with some self-deprecating amusement about growing old. He plays part of one action scene with a chaw of tobacco in his cheek.

Ben Johnson
More of an anomaly than a highlight is finding pop singer Bobby Vinton (“Blue Velvet”) as one of Wayne’s men. To his credit, he seems more comfortable in a western than Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo (1959). He plays the youngster of the group, unsure of himself, occasioning a lecture on manhood from the Duke:

You’re a man, you’re stuck with it. You’ll find yourself standing your ground and fightin’ when you oughtta run, speakin’ out when you oughtta keep your mouth shut, doin’ things that seem wrong to a lot of people but you’ll do them all the same. You’re gonna spend the rest of your life getting’ up one more time when you’re knocked down, so you better start gettin’ used to it.

This might well sum up the John Wayne credo. It describes just about every western hero he ever played. Ann-Margret tries to take some of the wind out of his sails by finding fault with him. “All you do is drift,” she says at the end. He gives her one of his looks and says, “It’s what I’m good at.”

From the opening credits

The opening credit sequence is iconic and seems inspired by spaghetti westerns. The scene opens on a desolate stretch of railroad tracks with a few scattered buildings that look deserted; we see some horses in a corral. Wind blows clouds of dust. Ben Johnson stands looking up the tracks and waiting. A sign, “Liberty, Texas,” creaks in the breeze. Vinton appears at the top of the water tower, where he’s been taking a bath, and calls down to Johnson. Three minutes have passed with only the sound of the wind blowing; no music. Nice.

The Train Robbers was filmed in Technicolor and Panavision and shot on location in Durango, Mexico. It is currently available at netflix, amazon, and Barnes&Noble, plus amazon video and nook video. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies and TV, drift on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading:
BITS review of Burt Kennedy westerns

Coming up: John Reese, They Don't Shoot Cowards (1974)


  1. I guess they can't all be good. Always liked Ben Johnson-especially in LAST PICTURE SHOW.

  2. I definitely remember Ben Johnson with fondness. I'm not a big fan of the John Wayne movies, although some were outstanding. Like the Shootist, and True grit

  3. You really hit it on the head, Ron, observing there are a number of noteworthy individual segments here that somehow never manage to add up to a satisfying whole. Ben Johnson carries the load, in his banter with Rod Taylor and a couple quiet scenes with Ann Margaret ... Worst part: That God-awful, relentless, unnamed, idiotic "posse" that keeps chasing and chasing and chasing ... Best part: The aforementioned banter between Johnson and Taylor (example: Taylor shows up in the nameless little town at the beginning and asks, "Any women here?" - "One," Ben tells him - "Good, we can fight over her," Taylor declares ... Still and all, enough action and good scenes to make it worth watching.

  4. This is one of several John Wayne films I haven't seen yet. Western films and novels often have youngsters in the group, be it among a band of outlaws or in a posse or even as a young deputy sheriff or ranch hand, and they usually play good guys out to prove something. Ricky Nelson in "Rio Bravo" reminds me of Horst Buchholz in "The Magnificent Seven." Nelson's death was premature.

  5. I must not have liked this one much, don't remember it. I am sure I have watched or tried to watch every western I could, with Wayne's popularity I must have seen this one. Think I will watch for it. Another great review.

  6. As with nearly all of Wayne's westerns, I enjoy THE TRAIN ROBBERS, but it does feel a bit slight. Seems like half the movie is taken up wiht scenes of people riding horses hither and yon. I love westerns, and enjoy riding scenes, but all the footage of many riders gallumphing about here seems more like padding to me. Good points about Ben Johnson, such a great natural screen presence, and it's good fun to see Rod Taylor sparking with Wayne well. (Makes me wish he would have worked with him more often...he would have been a perfect fit for something like HATARI!). And what can one say about Ann-Margret, other than "hubba hubba" x 100.

  7. Have not seen this, but unless I'm very much mistaken, that's Christopher George standing between Taylor and Johnson in the photo. George was a former Marine who starred in "Rat Patrol" on TV. He had appeared in another Wayne film (he was the leader of the guns for hire in El Dorado).

  8. Ben John is the real McCoy cowpoke, horse tamer. Always liked the z' sassiness of beautiful women donning menswear , especially sleek cowboy outfits. Yes, Ann-Margaret in a dress is definitely more feminine but tough to ride side-saddle contrasted with a regular man's saddle to be used with pants . In " son of Paleface " ; Jane Russell dressed as Hopalong Cassidy is a sexy stunner ! Barbara Rhoades in " Shakiest Gun in the West " ; looks super in cowboy drag , especially her brown jeggings tucked into tall , suede cowboy boots.