The Great Train Robbery

I was once asked to write and direct a movie featuring the youth of our church ward (congregation). So I pulled out my smart phone, pointed it at the young people and wrapped up the project in 15 minutes.


This was in another age, shortly after painting on cave walls was going out of style, according to my children and especially my grandchildren. We used “portable” motion picture cameras mounted on tripods. We used subtitles because sound for amateur movies had not yet been developed. Or as my grandchildren assume, language had not yet been invented. The technology was so ancient; we took actual photos on a transparent tape called “film.” The project took not 15 minutes, more like 15 months.

I borrowed the title from a 1903 epic “The Great Train Robbery:” a 12 minute production which was “absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made,” according to its catalogue description.

We wanted our movie to be somewhat longer. Fortunately we had in our ward a cinematographer who taught at Brigham Young University. We also had a slew of horse owners. And we had a historic old train called the Heber Creeper because it was used to ferry tourists up Provo Canyon to a little town named Heber. We were practically outfitted enough to rob a real train, but decided we would finance the project another way.

Like the title, the plot of our movie was old. Lonely miners learn of a train filled with a bevy of beauties bound for the theaters in San Francisco. They decide to stop the train, kidnap the comely wenches and woo then into wanting to marry them. More on that later. Try to control your enthusiasm.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, or in this case, back at the backyards, the neighbors and friends were grooming their motley herd of horses for their debut. The horses ranged from glue factory fodder to Jim Nixon’s multi-thousand dollar purebred Arabians. We also had one super star, at least in his own mind, a donkey known well in the neighborhood as the community alarm clock. Early every morning he was faithfully at his post braying in the dawn.

Since this was a church project, we hoped it would not only give our young people a memorable experience, but also teach them valuable character traits. Such as standing firm on their principles in a world where people are often, in the words of St. James, “Driven with the wind and tossed.”

I arranged with the Heber Creeper to have the train stop at the shore of a scenic mountain lake. Our miners would be waiting to storm the train, and sweep away with the fair maidens.

As you know, movies are not shot chronologically, but in scenes which are then strung together in the proper order in the editing room.

So to expedite things and not keep the train passengers waiting, the miners were already mounted with their lovely captives on the horses. We would film them riding romantically away with their future wives to a mountain hotel. Their would-be husbands would then court them properly to persuade the girls to marry them. The plot thickens here.

Came the day of the Great Shoot for The Great Train Robbery. We gathered the motley horse herd and motley horse trailers at the church. Timing was critical. We didn’t want to miss the train. Unfortunately the horses didn’t know that, or care. But we finally coaxed, cajoled, and cussed them on board.

Except His Majesty the donkey. Apparently dissatisfied with his billing on the marquee, or unwilling to be photographed in the company of horses, he refused to budge out of his corral.

I tied a stout rope to his halter, fastened the other end to the bumper of my unstout four cylinder Volkswagen bus and The Great Tug of War for the Great Train Robbery began; forty horse power against one donkey power. It was a standoff. The bus didn’t stall, and the donkey didn’t step. Straight legged, firm as a statue he scraped up the road to the waiting trailer. Many hands lifted him on board, and we were off.

By the tracks at the water’s edge we heard a train whistle in the distance. The boys nervously pulled their bandanas over their mouths and noses. The girls hugged their captors’ waists for security. The Horses pawed the ground a little in anticipation.

“Here she comes,” the boys shouted as the train rounded a bend.

In the festive spirit of the occasion, the engineer blew his whistle. The plaintive moan in the distance was a sonic blast up close.

Every horse spooked for the hills. Miners and their fair maidens were launched in every direction. A couple of horses crossed paths with a creek. Spooked by the water they hit the brakes and catapulted their riders into the stream. Some youths hung on and sped up the mountain until their winded mounts wheezed to a halt.

Amidst the panic and confusion, only one stood steadfast at his post, braying at the top of his lungs. The engineer paused his train, but finding no one but a donkey in sight, he put on the steam and rolled on down the tracks. Or so he thought. From the perspective of the star of our show, steadfastness and non flinching had won the day. He was not, “driven with the wind and tossed.” Single voicedly: he had driven away the enemy.

Somewhere perhaps St. James is smiling.