The Train Robbers has been sitting in my Netflix queue for ages, hoping every Tuesday night that I’ll finally pick it for a Western Wednesday. It may have stayed there forever had not Justin Gray suggested it. Gray, as you should know by now, is coauthor of the DC series Jonah Hex. If he says “You should watch The Train Robbers!”, you call up the Netflix queue, and then you apologize to John Wayne that you required someone to intercede on his behalf.
However about halfway through, I began wondering if I had picked the right movie. Nothing was happening. The villains were a dustcloud shrouded bunch who just thundered around, Ann-Margaret was getting on my nerves, the sidekicks were blurring together, and Wayne was just being Wayne. I checked the clock and was relieved to see there was only about 15 minutes left.
And in that 15 minutes, The Train Robbers becomes an epic, edge-of-your-seat Western that just beg the question “Why the heck did they save up all the good stuff until now?” There’s explosions, a dynamite-loaded mule, guns, a creepy town, a train used as an entire weapon, and a big twist. It’s really one of the best action pieces I’ve seen in a Wayne Western.
It’s eerily reminiscent of the endings of Joe Kidd and High Plains Drifter, the latter of which was released that same year. The similarities are especially interesting considering Wayne tore Clint Eastwood a new one over the violence in Drifter. I guess Wayne could sleep at night after Robbers’ explosions because we only saw one body, and his character wasn’t responsible for it. It’s all about the fine points.
Yes, there may be some hyperbole there. A more tempered description might be that The Train Robbers was one heck of a pilot episode. Unfortunately, the show will never be picked up, so you’ll never find out whether or not Lane and his offbeat bunch succeeded. It’s maddening.
Cynics could argue it’s a sign my generation was ruined by George Lucas and all the franchises he spawned, though. And they might be right. After all, it’s John Wayne. Of course he succeeded. Audiences in 1973 didn’t need another movie to tell them that, did they?
But you know what I didn’t need to see? Wayne obsessing over Ann-Margaret’s boobage.
Let me back up and describe the plot. Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margaret) is the widow of a train robber. Her husband and his gang captured one heck of a haul, and buried it, but were shot and scattered before they could ever retrieve it. She knows where it is, but she doesn’t want it for herself.
She wants to retrieve it and return it to the train company so her husband’s name can be cleared, and their son won’t live in shame. So she recruits Lane (Wayne) and his gang of gunfighters to help her, and promises them the train company’s $50,000 reward. Easy enough, except that her husband’s gang is on her trail.
Wayne’s headache is that she insists on coming along. Mrs. Lowe is a practical woman, and proudly shows him that she’s bought pants and a shirt so she can be tough and functional. Wayne approves of the tight pants, but shakes his head over the shirt. It needs to be tighter. He offers to boil it so it will hug her in all the right places.
His reasoning is that if the outlaws are able to see her rocking body from a distance, they won’t shoot her. They’ll shoot everyone else, take her alive, and have her show them where the gold is. It doesn’t matter that it’s painfully obvious she’s a woman even in a “baggy” shirt, she really needs to flaunt it so they won’t lose their head in a gunfight.
This comes up again and again. Midway through the film, they’re caught in a rainstorm and she requires a poncho. Her biggest fear isn’t flooding, lightning, or losing the horses. It’s that her assets are being covered. Oh” Wayne says. That’s ok. I don’t think they’ll show up tonight anyway. I don’t even think this is a joke.
Later on, he trots her out in front of the evil posse. They shoot at her. Wayne is utterly bewildered and realizes they must really be cold-blooded if they’re willing to poke holes in such fine boobage.
With such concern given to Ann-Margaret’s shapely breasts, you might think this film is very black-and-white in its sexism. I would be inclined to agree, since Wayne calls her “Woman” for half the film and threatens to spank her. She likes it enough to give him dewy-eyes and a marriage proposal. He’s not even flattered by that: “I’ve got a saddle that’s older than you are, Mrs. Lowe.”
But then she strikes back, and it’s hilarious. I can’t convince myself that Burt Kennedy put in all those “Woman! Show your breasts!” jabs only to accidentally make “Woman” roar. He had to have plotted it out, trusting that the audience would laugh even harder when they remembered her boiled shirt and tight pants.
And there’s so many speeches pondering the weight of manhood that I feel the entire audience — and perhaps Wayne along with us — was lured into thinking The Train Robbers was about trains being robbed. Instead, it ends up being about one of the greatest battles of all, and how easily it can be won with just the right assets.
(The Train Robbers is available on Netflix Instant Watch, as are most of the Western Wednesday selections so far. Keep up if your eyeballs can take it!)