The Train Robbers
Director – Burt Kennedy
Cast – John Wayne, Ann-Margaret, Rod Taylor, Ben Johnson, Ricardo Montalban
I didn’t realize how late in life John Wayne kept making westerns; apparently he kept right on going right up to a couple of years before his death. I guess the John Wayne western movie was such an American institution he couldn’t stop making them any more than Old Faithful could stop gushing.
In The Train Robbers, a tired and derivative movie, he plays a gritty and authoritative man who recruits some old friends to hunt down stolen gold, which belongs to a woman whose husband was shot keeping the hiding place secret. These old and tired men stroll through a few miles of the American West to find the case of gold, “pursued” by a band of 20 men who aim to steal it from Wayne and Co. once it is discovered. This results in a gunfight or two (actually, I think literally just two), by which time we find the indomitable American hero at a train station, where he dynamites three buildings to take care of 4 or 5 straggling baddies.
It is a strange thing, but this final sequence is probably the best in the whole movie, and the final scene (in which a nice little twist is revealed) is actually wonderful. It’s a pity that the rest of the movie is so bland, boring, and just plain dull. I haven’t seen a movie this empty of vim and vigour in ages. It is as if the aging John Wayne (he was 66 at the time of filming) sapped the whole production of all energy. Quite frankly, the role (and even this type of movie) was quite unsuited to John Wayne by this point in his life. Did he continue with the same type of roles because that was all he knew? Probably.
What makes it worse is that there is nothing blatantly wrong with the story as is. It could have been fairly interesting; perhaps with some more focus on the tension between Wayne and his friends, or with more focus on Ricardo Montalban’s mysterious character, who follows both groups through the western sands. The movie just doesn’t have an iota of dramatic energy, and we merely end up with a bland feeling of vague disinterest. If only some chances were taken here, any chances at all to make it more interesting or give it a sense of urgency. Some better editing would have gone a long way. How do you have the legendary Duke in a gunfight over $50,000 in gold against 4 to 1 odds and have it be boring?
The Train Robbers has a decent movie buried inside it, but is smothered by an aging star who is unfit for the role, and by a total lack of urgency and suspense. Perhaps I am biased, as I’m not known for loving westerns, but I couldn’t get into this movie in the least. Maybe someone accustomed to the genre would have better luck. Maybe.
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Director – Clint Eastwood
Cast – Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Jaimz Woolvett, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher
Unforgiven is often referred to as one of the last great westerns, and as such it should come as no surprise that the great Clint Eastwood both directs and stars in it. This is a strange sort of western. It uses all the old western tropes; we have the damsels in distress (two points for being prostitutes), a slightly villainous sheriff, and two old partners reuniting for one last job. However despite all these we feel as if we don’t know what precisely will happen, and the movie feels abundantly fresh. It is slow, uses somewhat stereotypical figures, doesn’t have too much in the way of storyline, and is heavily dependent on mood. Essentially it is the western version of Blade Runner.
The movie has a rich supporting cast, and it is a good thing too, as one of the only things holding the movie back is (surprisingly) the performance of the lead, Clint Eastwood. He plays a subdued and tired character, a bounty hunter turned pig farmer who has given up his old ways out of respect for his dead wife, and so that he can raise his two children. The character is supposed to be tired and fairly monotonous to be sure, but Clint rarely breaks out of a caraciture of himself. I was reminded of Jim Carreys short parody of Clint Eastwood in Bruce Almighty. However after the movie really digs in and finds it legs we do indeed start to feel for his character, maybe because of his solitude.
The greatest thing about the movie is that it never absolves any character of what they do, and certainly does not condone violence. This is not A Fistful of Dollars; killing is not presented as being cool, and there is no real good guy or bad guy. The closest we get to a villian is Gene Hackman’s Sherrif “Little Bill”. His motives are of the purest kind, yet the way he goes about his duties is, well, a tad heavy handed. Clint Eastwood is reluctant to kill, but when given a realreason to do so, he goes about it with a certain flair and assuredness that you just know he’s not exactly sad about letting off a little steam. The person who possibly comes off the best is Morgan Freeman’s character, though even he has his moments. Their little sidekick, who aroggantly calls himself “the Schofield Kid” and claim to have killed five men (though he has yet to kill a single soul), is a cocky, worthless, little brat of a boy; a total write off.
It has been said by Gene Siskel and to some extent Roger Ebert that there are too many unnecessary secondary characters. I heavily disagree with them, as I found that they spiced up the movie and gave it some of its best moments. Sure some of them didn’t advance the plot per se, but that wasn’t the point. They weren’t the point of the trip, they were the nice stops at Burger King along the way. Richard Harris’ “English Bob” is one of the highlights. He is followed around by a writer chronicling his exploits who is played by Saul Rubinek (Daphne’s fiance, Donny, in the show Frasier). They all add wonderfully to the movies scope.
The story all builds up to a climax that at first glance seems to go directly against the movie’s message. However if you think about it in relation to the title and while paying attention to the epilogue, it is a bitter and ironic scene. Most westerns are, again, about how badass the main character is. This is about how being badass isn’t worth shit.
Unforgiven is one of Eastwood’s best, and among the best in the genre. The story is steady and carefully played out, and the ending is strangely touching. A character dies, and I was surprised to find that I didn’t want him to die. Such subtelty is unusual in a movie such as this, and I relished the tone and atmoshphere offered up. When a genre movie is excellently done, it creates a must see for everyone, not just the fans of that particular genre. That is what we have here.
NOTE: It has come to my attention that a Wikipedia user has quoted this site on Gene Siskel’s dislike of Unforgiven (on the Wikipedia page for The Silence of the Lambs) and thus that my site has a link on that page. I would like to clarify (as I am getting a fair bit of traffic from Silence of the Lambs page) that I do not hold myself as an authority on that matter, and that another site (At The Movies for example) should have been referenced . Thanks.
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A Fistful of Dollars REVIEW
Director – Sergio Leone
Cast – Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volontè, Sieghardt Rupp, José Calvo
– followed by A Few Dollars More
Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone revitalized the western genre back in the sixties with their “Spaghetti Westerns”. The director believed that westerns had become stagnant and preachy, and tried to create something. It’s a pity he stole the script from the Japanese film Yojimbo; its producers sued Leone and Co. and ended up getting 15% of all worldwide profits and exclusive distribution rights for Japan. Despite the plagiarism (apparently in both story and style) A Fistful of Dollars remains a unique movie, with a different take on the Western genre.
Much of the credit for this belongs to Clint Eastwood, who plays the lead character. (He is constantly referred to in popular culture as “The Man with No Name”, yet he does have a name here, Joe. He is called by a different name in the sequels however, so it is suggested he always uses aliases.) Clint here is tough, rugged, and a man of few words. We are never given a back story for him, and this works in favor of the movie. He is not a character, but a symbol; a symbol of everything we all wish we could be. His quick draw is lightning fast, and his mind is sharp. In fact, what drives the story (contrary to many of the western genre) is his plotting and politicking.
The plot is about his manipulation of two different families, playing on against the other to Eastwood’s profit, and these families are portrayed interestingly as well. In most movies where there is such a situation, one of the two families is portrayed as worse than the other. There is a overbearing group and a beaten down group. We would of course, cheer for the underdog. But here we are shown two families who are just as bad as one another. The only people we are really asked to sympathize with throughout the movie are a young boy, Jesus, who has been separated from his mother (who has been taken by Ramon Roho, one of the more villainous characters) and his mother herself. This plot line is not brought out as much as it could have been though.
The great Ennio Morricone composed the music, and it is nothing if not iconic. He composed the music for the whole trilogy, and his main theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of those great songs that everyone knows but rarely know where its from. However the music in A Fistful of Dollars (while definitely unique, iconic, and almost experimental) tends to play the same tune once or twice too many. It actually took me out of the movie a couple of times. However it is so distinctive that it is in the end, worth it.
This is a darker movie than most previous westerns, and it was this change in tone that was seen as so revolutionary. We are not given a hero who needs revenge, who is protecting a village from bandits, etc. He is motivated purely by desire for money. It is a violent movie as well, with several deaths, including one of an innocent women who runs out of her burning home only to be shot at point blank range by Ramon Rohos. It’s not pretty, and it doesn’t really even elicite a response from Clint Eastwood’s Joe, who is watching. He merely sighs and leaves the scene. There was nothing he could have done and he knew it. Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne would have jumped in there guns blazing and saved the day. But this is The Man With No Name, and he’s not stupid.
A Fistful of Dollars is the rare beast, a good western movie. It has smarts to go along with its violence. It’s got a memorable musical score and equally memorable characters, and was just the kick up the pants the genre needed. It invented a new definition of cool, and solidified Clint Eastwood as both a critical and commercial success. Definitely recommended.
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