Tuesday, November 11, 2008


John Wayne and voluptuous Ann-Margret co-star in writer & director Burt Kennedy's "The Train Robbers" (**1/2 stars out of ****), a traditional but rambunctious western shoot'em up about a notorious outlaw's widow who hires the Duke to recover a half-a-million in stolen gold from her husband's last robbery five years old. She wants the money returned to Wells Fargo so she clear her husband’s name as well as keep her young son from growing up thinking that his father went around robbing trains. Wayne summons his trusty old saddle pals Rod Taylor, Ben Johnson and Bobby Vinton to accompany him on this perilous journey. Taylor brings along a couple of young gunmen, Christopher George and Jerry Gatlin, to find the buried treasure. No sooner has Wayne, Ann-Margret, and company saddled up and crossed the border into Mexico to find the fortune in gold than a train load of gunslingers show up and pursue them. Meanwhile, lurking on the fringes of the action is a mysterious but elegantly-attired, cigar-smoking hombre who never loses sight of them. He turns out to be a pretty fair shot with a Winchester rifle.

Our heroes meet at an isolated railway station in Liberty, Texas, rather like the one in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West." The small town appears empty. The wind gusts across the boardwalk at the hotel and sways the rocking chairs back and forth. A metal sign buckles in the breeze. Jesse (Ben Johnson of "Rio Grande") awaits the arrival of Lane (John Wayne) on a train that was due in the day before, and everybody is astonished when Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret of "Viva Las Vegas") gets off the train with Lane. Jesse and Grady (Rod Taylor of "Dark of the Sun") remember Lane as "bull-headed" and they discover to their relief that he hasn't changed an iota. Later, we learn that Jesse and Grady served together under Lane in the Union Army during the American Civil War where they endured their baptism under fire at Vicksburg. Life for these three has been going up one hill of adversity after another. Feisty Calhoun stands up to Lane, and Lane wallops Grady. Grady thinks that Lane ought to be happy that Calhoun stood up to him. Conversely, Lane wants men who will stand alongside him not against him. Calhoun demands to know what they are getting themselves into, and Lane observes that they are doing what any hired gun does . . . risking their lives. Earlier, before Lane and Mrs. Lowe got off the train, Grady told Jesse that he has shown up for the job simply because it amounted to "something to do."

After initial misgivings about endangering a woman on a long ride through the desert, Lane and company head out. Before they leave the station, Lane has Mrs. Lowe's shirt boiled so that she will stand out and her late husband’s pallbearers won't mistake her as a man and try to shoot her. An army of gunmen—we never see these guys up close—shadow our heroes across the parched terrain to the accompaniment of "Rat Patrol" composer Dominic Frontiere's giddy-up score that signals the change of locale when everybody plunges across the Rio Grande into old Mexico. Along the way, during several campfire scenes we learn more about our heroes. Eventually, the feuding between Calhoun and Lane ends and they become friends. Finally, our heroes find the railroad train in the middle of the Mexican desert. They dig into the boiler and find the gold, but they aren't about to go anywhere because that ubiquitous army of gunmen that has been trailing them arrives. As our heroes fortify themselves for the ensuing gun battle, Jesse and Grady swap memorable but pithy dialogue. "Don't get old," Grady warns Jesse, "you'll live to regret it." The twenty gunmen attack them, but our heroes emerge unscathed largely because—in Lane's words—"they could shoot worth a damn."

 Our heroes head back across the border, but the remaining gunmen beat them back to Liberty and prepare a reception for them. Everything ends with a bang-up shoot-out at the railway station where Lane met Jesse and Calhoun. Our heroes virtually blow the town to bits with dynamite so they can defeat the villains. During this fracas, Mrs. Lowe pulls a fast one on our heroes in what constitutes an O’Henry reversal. The well-dressed stranger (Ricardo Montalban of "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan") turns out to be a Pinkerton detective who has been on Mrs. Lowe for five years. He explains that she was never married and that Lowe died with a bullet in the back in the bordello where Mrs. Lowe worked. She reveals that Mrs. Lowe’s name is Lily. Our heroes scramble after the departing train that carries the pseudo Mrs. Lowe and the gold.

Burt Kennedy got his start writing laconic but entertaining oaters for director Budd Boetticher in the 1950s. Wayne’s film production company Batjac produced many of Boetticher’s existential westerns so it is no surprise that Kennedy went on to pen westerns for Wayne. The first collaboration between Wayne and Kennedy was the superlative "The War Wagon." Mind you, "The Train Robbers" isn't half as exhilarating as "The War Wagon," but this nifty little sagebrusher never runs out of steam and the dialogue is fun to hear. Rod Taylor is nothing short of brilliant as Wayne and Johnson's friend. Okay, all the characters are pretty much stereotypical and of them gets so much as a scratch. Wayne plays his usual stalwart hero and leathery Ben Johnson is his wise sidekick. Naturally, Ann-Margret is a feast for the eyes. The scene where Wayne tries to get her drunk so she will reveal the whereabouts of the gold is amusing. Later, when she comes onto Wayne, he deflects her amorous advances with the line, "M'am, I've got a saddle older than you."

Although it is painfully predictable from fade-in to fade-out, "The Train Robbers” is a rip-snorting adventure that benefits immeasurably from veteran Wayne lenser William H. Clothier's gorgeous widescreen photography. Veteran stunt & wrangler Cliff Lyons orchestrates the hard-riding horsemen scenes. Special photographic effects veteran Albert Whitlock does some nice things with his hand-painted visuals. Check out the long shot where our heroes appear to be riding near a river with a waterfall. No, "The Train Robbers" is not "The Searchers" or "El Dorado," but John Wayne fans will enjoy this familiar but engaging western.