The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Train Robbers

There is nothing particularly remarkable about 1973's The Train Robbers in any way.  As a western, it is nothing new to the genre, borrowing from other, better stories.  As an adventure, it's as straightforward as they come.  In terms of casting, it's fun to see some recognizable faces working together, their chemistry overshadowing the general average feeling of the movie. Like so many movies star John Wayne made later in his career though, it stands the test of time as the movie equivalent of comfort food.  Shut your brain off and sit back, enjoy the Duke being the Duke.

For lack of a better reason, I like this movie because of my childhood memories of The Train Robbers.  Watching it now, I still get the same enjoyment I did that I watched it when I was 10 or 11.  This was one of my Grandma's favorite westerns, one that she'd taped off of WGN at some point.  So every couple months when my sister and I would have a sleepover at her house, this was one of those movies I'd stay up until the wee hours watching.  So maybe that's why I like it so much in spite of its many flaws.  Not one of the Duke's best, but still an interesting, entertaining western.

In the isolated border town of Liberty, Texas, five gunmen, including grizzled cowboys, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson), and young hotshots, Calhoun (Christopher George), Ben (Bobby Vinton) and Turner (Jerry Gatlin) wait for the inbound train. On board is an old friend, Lane (Wayne), who offers a dicey if promising deal.  With him is a widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret), who wants to get the reward for the gold/money her since dead husband stole from a train. The gold has been stashed away in the desert some three or four days south somewhere in Mexico, but only Mrs. Lowe knows the exact spot.  With the chance to split the reward, they all join Lane and start out on the trail south, but they're not alone.  The other surviving members of the gang from the robbery years before are gunning for the gold. It's a race into the desert to see who can find it first.

Doing his typical solid if unspectacular, workmanlike job directing, Burt Kennedy has a problem with this movie which he also wrote. The movie is just 93 minutes long and at times feels like it was severely cut.  I've read nothing that confirms a longer version of The Train Robbers, but it is a surprisingly short movie.  Call it a gut reaction, but something was missing and maybe it was lost in the editing room.  What's left still manages to be full of holes.  Of the 91 minutes, I'd wager half is long/medium shots of riders on the horizon, Wayne and Co. riding south.  While tedious, it's not all bad.  Composer Dominic Frontiere's score is memorable, especially the main theme that you'll be humming for days. Two, the locations are gorgeous (Durango, Mexico for those curious) and familiar to fans of westerns.  Still, this movie feels more like a travel guide than a feature length film at times.

Somewhat predictable storyline aside (more on that later), the strength of the movie is in the casting, especially Wayne, Taylor and Johnson.  The Duke is as comfortable as ever as the western hero, and he plays well off of consummate vets like Taylor and Johnson.  As Grady, Taylor is that obnoxious friend who never shuts up, but you like him anyways.  As Jesse, Johnson plays a variation on every character he ever played, the grizzled but wise cowboy.  Their history is probably worthy of its own movie, but the trio has an ease on-screen that carries the movie through its slower portions.  George is the only one of the other three to distinguish himself as Calhoun, the fiery gunfighter along for the cash also trying to prove himself.  This is the 3rd review in a row I'll say it, but Ann-Margret God bless her is there for eye candy.  She succeeds magnificently by the way.

Writing this script, it seems pretty clear to me that Kennedy had an idea for the opening, the shootout over the gold in the middle of the desert, and then the final showdown back at the sleepy train station and town.  Anything else in between those three things? Eh, we'll figure it out.  That's where the long, uninterrupted shots of riders on the horizon come in, the repetitious campfire scenes.  Thankfully those three set pieces are worthwhile.  The dusty opening as the crew waits for the train is reminiscent of a similar opening in Once Upon a Time in the West.  The shootout in the desert around an over-turned train has an apocalyptic, other-worldly feel to it, and the finale has plenty of shooting and explosions to appease the action fan in all of us.  I just wished there was something else, something more.

Worth pointing out is a really solid surprise ending courtesy of Ricardo Montalban's mysterious hombre.  Up until this point, he's just been hovering around the story without a word said.  His twist he delivers is a classic, prompting a great exchange between Taylor and Johnson. It's a good movie overall, but I've always felt it could have been much, much better.  It's missing something that's hard to explain.  If curious, check it out at Youtube, watch the whole thing HERE.     

The Train Robbers (1973): ***/****

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