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Robbery Under Arms (1957)

Going in to this Jack Lee directed flick, I assumed, based on the title that I was set to watch one of those British Noir/Gangster films of the period that I so enjoy. This time with Peter Finch in the lead. What I got was far from it. As it turns out I embarked on an entertaining coming of age Aussie western filmed on location with Finch playing a key role yet a secondary one. The real stars of the film are a pair of youngsters played by Ronald Lewis and David McCallum who fall in with a gang of cattle thieves led by Finch and Laurence Naismith who plays their father.

The year is 1865, the land is vast and baron. Lewis and McCallum are just coming off earning some honest wages and intend to spend it in the nearest town. Things go sideways when they make a decision to team with the aging Naismith in a large scale cattle rustling operation led by Finch that has them branding and driving a large stolen herd six hundred miles to market. One step ahead of a constable on their trail.

So far so good and after the pay off the boys leave the outlaw life and catch a schooner for Melbourne. On board they’ll will meet two sisters played by the fiery Maureen Swanson and the girl next door type, Jill Ireland. Lewis who plays his part with an Errol Flynn devil may care swagger possesses a fondness for both trouble and the ladies immediately takes to Miss Swanson and she’s more than receptive to his charms. While the pair embark on a tempestuous relationship, it’s a love at first sight romance for the quiet younger brother David and the genteel Jill.

But the past will haunt the boys when news of Finch’s arrest reaches them and they’re implicated in the theft. They’ll ditch the ladies and are back on the run heading to the hideout in the outback where they’ll reconnect with Naismith and the newly escaped Finch.

“We’re all committed men now.”

Stagecoach’s are the new target for easy cash but again the boys lose their taste for the life of an outlaw and will again leave Finch and Naismith behind in pursuit of riches in a newly discovered gold rush. It’s here that the pair will take on new identities and as fate would have it reconnect with the ladies. For the mild mannered David and Jill, it’s a time to renew their love for each other. For Lewis and Swanson it’s a time to renew their stormy romance full of jealousy where Swanson is concerned.

The goal is to dig up enough color and set sail for America taking Jill along now that she and David are married and Swanson when the time is right. This will become a major plot point as the film heads into the final reel.

So just when things look to be headed in their favor with a bankroll in hand, Finch and his gang ride into the boomtown with one thought in mind. The bank that houses the gold dust. It’s at this point things are going to turn sour for the boys ruining their plans for a life in the new world.

It’s a harsh take no prisoners final thirty odd minutes with a twist or two I really hadn’t expected. This only added to the realism and my admiration for the film based on a novel by Rolf Boldrewood first published in 1882. Little did I know this was an oft filmed novel dating back to the silent era (twice) and as recent as 1985 with Sam Neill in the Finch role.

Finch as Captain Starlight reminded me of the aging William Holden’s Pyke in Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch. The future Oscar winner, Finch, commands much the same way and knows there’s only one way this lifestyle will play out but that it will come to an end on his own terms.

Finch may have scored first billing but the film belongs to the younger Ronald Lewis not only looks like the hell raiser Flynn but seems to have channeled his spirit playing the part of the youngster tempted by the both the ladies and the exciting life of an outlaw. Aside from appearing in a couple of thrillers for Hammer (Stop Me Before I Kill & Scream of Fear) I’m not all that familiar with the career of Lewis and was saddened to learn he took his own life at the age of 53.

Character actor Naismith is one of those “faces” you’re sure to recognize. And why not. He’s appeared in most anything from Bela Lugosi’s Vampire Over London, opposite Olivier in Richard III to Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi. I also enjoyed his recurring role on the short lived series The Persuaders with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. Born in England, he even squeezed in episodes of Bonanza, The Invaders and The Fugitive on to his resume. Not bad.

Of course the real trivia here for me is the appearance of Jill Ireland and her then husband David McCallum. They’d also appear in the superior, Hell Drivers, released the same year. Then in 1960 costarred once again in Jungle Street Girls. Jill would also guest in a number of Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes opposite David and Robert Vaughn.

But it’s David’s appearance in the 1963 classic, The Great Escape, that brought the couple into contact with Charles Bronson who was steadily climbing up the ladder of success. According to legend Bronson jokingly told David that he would someday steal Jill away and marry her. It’s also interesting to note that David appeared in an episode of the TV series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters opposite cast regular Bronson. I’d be curious to know if Jill was on set for that shoot as well.

A side note on that…… If you’ve never seen Kurt Russell talk about giving Bronson a present for his birthday on the set of that TV show, youtube the Russell interview. Hilarious and it’s in keeping with the Bronson persona.

Five years later following her divorce from McCallum, Bronson, did just that and Jill became the mustached icon’s most frequent costar ending with her premature death at 54 following a lengthy and courageous battle against breast cancer.

A first time viewing for me, this version of Robbery Under Arms offered up a solid piece of entertainment with a great musical score, a vast location shoot and a cast worthy of your time. Recommended. Where to find it? I happened across a DVD released by VCI Entertainment.

12 Comments »

  1. It’s been a while since I watched this but I seem to recall liking it for the first two thirds of the running time or so, and then feeling disappointed that the more interesting character was no longer there.

  2. Strangely enough, i had the same thoughts as you and never fingered it for an Aussie movie even though it had Finch in it who I knew was Australian. But I knew Ronald Lewis was Welsh and David McCallum also not an Aussie, so that had enforced my wrongful supposition. And I also thought it was a British crime B-picture. So fascinating to discover it was anything but and a pretty interesting tale at that never mind that I guess it’s where McCallum and Ireland hit it off. I always liked Finch. He had an easy command of the screen.

    • Yeah that title threw me off though that was the original course title long before the crime dramas were even being thought of. I liked the cast involved and should look into more of Finch’s career. I’m not well versed in his filmography save for a few standards.

      • Some are hardly seen at all these days like The Red Tent which I’m reviewing in a month or so. And he was one of the best things in The Pumpkin Eater. But his billing seemed to shift around.

        • Red Tent a perfect example of a movie I’ve yet to see. I know there was a VHS release at one point but ever come across it in my hunt for movies in second shops which I so miss during this pandemic.

          • I have an old DVD. I didn’t think it got much of a release but today by chance I came across some box office stats in Variety for 1971 and discovered it had been given a bit of a push after Connery’s The Anderson Tapes did so well.

  3. Peter Finch in a Western? That’s really interesting as he seems out of place in the Wild West. I recall in a documentary about Leone’s Once Upon in the West, Sir Christopher Frayling saying the casting of Gabriele Ferzetti as the 2nd villain was like casting Laurence Olivier in a Western, and I got the same vibe with Finch, though Finch does have a ruggedness to him. Gonna have to do some IMDb research on this one and see if its ever aired on TV.

    • Worth a look and that’s interesting about Ferzetti. I think his character and performance is sometimes overlooked in Leone’s film as we all focus on the main 4. I love his last scene with the ocean surf on the soundtrack while he lays in that puddle. What a classic.

  4. Australian western! I enjoyed this one. Interesting trivia about Jill Ireland – I had no idea she was married to McCallum before her marriage to Bronson.

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