The Train Robbers (1973)

Directed by Burt Kennedy

I’ve a weakness for westerns. So I picked up 1973’s The Train Robbers even though I was not expecting much, having heard nothing about it. (I figure, if it was a really good film I’d have come across something about it somewhere.)

As it turns out, it’s kind of an intriguing movie. It’s not a great film by any means. It’s a passable story but largely forgettable.

Still, there is something about it that’s curiously fascinating.

From the opening scenes, over which the credits run, I was struck by how the movie looked. Shot in Panavision, written and directed by Burt Kennedy with cinematography by William H. Clothier, I was repeatedly finding myself enjoying just looking at scenes – at how they were framed, how elements were staged and the way the camera used the widescreen (a bit like the way Sergio Leone did).

Starring John Wayne and Ann Margaret, The Train Robbers is about a group of men who help a widow (Margaret) locate the gold her dead husband had stolen from a train and hidden. It’s a pretty conventional western plot, but this is okay – most are. As an audience, what we are interested in is Wayne’s character, Lane. Who is he?

We get the answer to this in the first and second acts of the movie. As it turns out, he’s John Wayne, meaning he’s the kind of character Wayne always played, which makes the film a bit anachronistic for the period it was made – 1973, the Sergio Leone, Sam Sam Peckinpah era.

There is no moral ambivalence in Wayne’s character. He’s the old school western hero, a man with an unequivocal sense of right and wrong. And with John Wayne, who had become the archetype of this kind of hero by this time, it works. (By contrast, compare it to the other archetype, Clint Eastwood’s anti-hero.)

The other element of the movie that grabs our interest is the mystery of and the threat posed by the group of riders who are following Wayne’s group. We’re told they are the dead husband’s partners from the original train robbery and they’ll stop at nothing to get the gold.

They outnumber Wayne’s group by quite a few and appear to be led by a cigar smoking, nattily dressed Ricardo Montalban.

It all makes for a modestly entertaining western though, in the end, nothing terribly remarkable. Still, it has those wonderfully composed shots. I’m not alone in finding the images intriguing.

I found Roger Ebert’s review of the film from back in February of 1973 and he has some very interesting observations on how Kennedy chose to design his film – how the clean visual look relates to the kind of character Wayne portrays and how it’s reminiscent of samurai dramas (especially true of the scenes in the desert). “The result is a movie that isolates the John Wayne mystique and surrounds it with the necessary simplicity and directness.”

On Amazon:

The Train Robbers – (U.S.)
The Train Robbers – (Canada)

1 Response

  1. Bob Hanna says:

    I watched the movie two or three times, but being a bit of hard of hearing, don’t know what Ricardo Montalban said at the end of the movie.

Leave a Reply