In the 1970s, the Western still appeared on the big screen but with much less frequency than it did at one time. The Duke made his last film in the same year this film came out. We also got Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” this year. The Charles Bronson film however might be the most unconventional Western Story in theaters this year; it is a amalgamation of 60’s action sensibilities and Agatha Christie, set on a train in the old west. There are murders that are never solved and people pretending to be things they are not. In the middle of all of this is our featured star for this festival, kicking butts and taking names.
Alistair MacLean is a name synonymous with action films of the 60’s. He authored World War II action novels and contemporary spy thrillers. Among his best know works are “The Guns of Navarone”, “Where Eagles Dare” and “Ice Station Zebra” . This book was a western but is contains many of the same elements of his other stories, for instance there is a spy element to the movie, and a series of false identities and it climaxes with a dramatic action sequence. The movie is definitely a product of it’s time. The pacing of the mystery is slow and deliberate and we get to know the plot only a little bit at a time. This is very different from today’s thrillers which must contain some sort of action every five minutes or else someone will call it boring. Anyway a group of people are on a train, traveling to a remote military base for a variety of reasons. Bronson plays John Deakin, a wanted thief and killer, who has been caught by a U.S. Marshall and brought onto the train to transport him to justice. The train is supposed to be delivering medical supplies to the stricken fort, but things are not as they seem as the passengers and crew of the train are being murdered.
The movie is filled with actors from the period that were personal favorites of mine. The recently passed David Huddleston (most of you would know him as the title character of “The Big Lebowski”) is a Doctor on a mercy mission. Richard Crenna, (best known as Rambo’s commander) is the territorial governor and Bronson’s wife, Jill Ireland, is his romantic partner. The Major in charge of the troops on the train is played by one of my all time favorites, Ed Lauter. In the last half of the movie, he essentially becomes the co-star with Bronson. Although he is often cast a a military figure, I do think he was a little odd in the role, he seems like such a contemporary actor. I’m not sure why it was necessary but Robert Tessier, who was so ominous as a tough gut in “The Longest Yard” has all of his lines dubbed.
This is the Charles Bronson Festival, so lets talk about Bronson and his character. To start the film, he plays a bit ineffectual, as a ruse to get where he needs to be. This is where he needs the acting skills he has because Charles Bronson never seems ineffectual, he is always a man of action with a degree of certainty around him. As the story moves forward he does get a chance to deliver a few humorous lines, most of them to his rel life spouse Jill Ireland. As the mystery begins to unfold, he is more and more front and center to the action and the number of lines he has is reduced. There is an Agatha Christie style reveal at the climax that is reminiscent of so many drawing room mysteries. It is never clear why the Marshall played by Ben Johnson gives him the run of the train once the killings begin, but there might be a dialogue scene that got cut for time somewhere.
This is not Bronson’s best Western, that would be “Once Upon a Time in the West” from 1968. This is however very typical of the Bronson Westerns of the 70s, most of them had a high concept twist to them and there were comedic elements that he could handle which did not require any slapstick. This was the second film in a row, after “Breakout” that he made with veteran TV Director Tom Gries. It is an efficient story told simply and without affectation, in other words, it is right where Charles Bronson liv