Judge Ian Visser is a hangin' judge, you dirty varmints!
The gold or the grave. One widow could lead them to either…
An enjoyable and light-hearted effort, The Train Robbers is delivered to fans of the Duke in a package that is bound to please.
Facts of the Case
Somewhere down in Mexico is $500,000, buried in a stolen Wells-Fargo lock box. When the widow of the train robber responsible for the theft approaches Lane (John Wayne, Rio Bravo) with an offer, he jumps on it. The widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret, Once a Thief), will return the money to the train company, and Lane and his partners can split the $50,000 reward. Mrs. Lowe has a son, and she's determined that he won't grow up knowing his dead father was a train robber.
Lane gathers his Civil War comrades Grady (Rod Taylor, Giant), Jesse (Ben Johnson, Radio Flyer), and Sam (Jerry Gatlin, Pale Rider), while Grady calls in young helpers Calhoun (Christopher George, The Shootist) and Ben (Bobby Vinton, Big Jake) as extra muscle. But the job gets complicated when the train robbers' partners come looking for their missing share, trailing a mysterious stranger (Ricardo Montalban, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan) in their wake.
By the early 1970s, the traditional western had nearly disappeared from the nation's theaters, replaced with the increasingly grim and cynical efforts of filmmakers like Sergio Leone and stars like Clint Eastwood. The traditional elements of good vs. bad, cowboys vs. Indians had become dated, and the public began to turn towards the darker and more sinister offerings coming from Hollywood.
As a result, The Train Robbers feels like a film from a different era. Rather than following the form of the gritty, tough western film, writer-director Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff) creates a western that almost borders on light comedy. The breezy writing lets the viewer know from the opening exchange of dialogue that this western will be an easy ride. Even John Wayne, famous tough-guy, gets a bunch of laughs and one-liners, often at his own expense.
The great striking element of The Train Robbers is the sparseness it possesses. Rather than the rowdy, loud town scenes we have come to expect in Westerns, director Kennedy has stripped away the population of the West down to only the bare essentials. Buildings in the town of Liberty, Texas, stand bare again the wind, with nary a sign or pedestrian in sight. The gang rides down into Mexico encountering barely a handful of people. One expects this is how the real West must have been; long expanses of great loneliness broken only by the occasional town or outpost. This sparseness extends to the cast, as well; from the opening sequence to the climatic close of the film, there are probable less than ten speaking parts in the entire film.
Director Kennedy certainly knows how to use every inch of screen space to maximum effect. Filmed in Panavision, The Train Robbers features plenty of gorgeous vistas, from rocky scrub to rippling desert dunes. The set pieces are also impressive; a wrecked train pokes up from the desert sands like a long-rotted dinosaur, and the town of Liberty sits scattered on the plain like blocks dropped from a child's hand. At turns both beautiful and haunting, this is one of the best-shot westerns that this reviewer has ever seen.
This stark presentation nicely compliments the nature of the film's plotting. There are no extraneous plot lines, no unexamined characters, and no wasted space. Each element of character and plot has its place, and if it isn't needed, it's not included. The result is a streamlined picture that allows the director to concentrate on the individual characters, and infuse them with characteristics another picture may not have had time for.
The cast is almost universally excellent. John Wayne was past his physical prime by 1973, but Kennedy seems to have realized that the Duke was just as quick with his mouth as with his fists. Wayne gets another chance to play stubborn and grumpy, and the supporting characters of Jesse and Sam are given some great exchanges that help flesh out their roles. Credit Ann-Margaret for rising above a cheesecake role and give her widow character some grit.
Warner Home Video has done a commendable job on the video for The Train Robbers. The 2:35:1 widescreen transfer is bold and beautiful, with great color and little or no dirt on the image. Black levels during some of the night shots are not as dark as they could be, but overall, this is probably the best the movie has ever looked. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track is also in fine shape, with sharp sound and a good balance between dialogue and the rousing soundtrack.
Warner Home Video has seen fit to include a few extras with the DVD. The main extra is a series of interviews with stunt people and actors from the film, entitled "Working with a Western Legend." The participants spend the 20 minutes commending the work ethic of the Duke, and detailing their stunt work in the film and Hollywood's westerns. The "Wayne Train" featurette is a short promotional reel from the period detailing the shooting process, intercut with scenes from the film. No real new information is conveyed here, but it is nice for a bit of history. The final feature is a collection of six trailers for John Wayne films, including The Train Robbers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Those viewers expecting a grim and tough western experience are bound to be disappointed. The easy-going nature of the film ensures that there is no real danger to our heroes, which limits any suspense that could have been created. Anyone looking for an old-fashioned western will be pleased, but those looking for a two-gun actioner should try something else.
The Train Robbers is not the best western ever made; in fact, it's not even Wayne's best. But it is a fine effort that is sure to entertain fans of the genre.
Not guilty. The Duke is freed to ride off into the sunset once more.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Working with a Western Legend" Featurette
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