Friday, June 06, 2008

'The Train Robbers': Duke Wayne and Ann-Margret hunt for gold in Texas


Dear Lord, if you're listening, send me a woman like Ann-Margret.

Oh, I'm kidding mostly. I want a woman with pretty eyes and a kind heart, who can discuss music and movies, baseball and books, all and nothing at all. But, wow, was Ann-Margret something back in the day...

Got home late from work last night and unwound on the couch with a Yuengling and Duke Wayne. Perfect combination, as it turned out.

Wayne teamed up with Elvis' former leading lady in this 1973 oater. It didn't win any Academy Awards, but it's a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Ann-Margret plays Mrs. Lowe, a widow who says she's hunting for the gold her late husband stole, in order to turn it in and clear his name. Duke is Lane, the aging gunfighter who agrees to help.

Lane shows up on a Texas train with Mrs. Lowe. Waiting are Lane's buddies -- Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (the underrated Ben Johnson). Along for the ride too are young guns Calhoun (Christopher George), Ben Young (the pop singer Bobby Vinton) and Sam (Jerry Gatlin).

Wayne was becoming a sentimental ol' codger in his old age and this movie is full of several quiet, unforgettable moments. Watching Ann-Margret and Ben Johnson swap stories around the campfire reminded me of Johnson's monologue to Timothy Bottoms in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show." He was such a natural actor, picture perfect as a cowboy's best buddy.

What is refreshing is that the producers didn't try to make Grandaddy Duke (he was crowding 70 when this film was made) romance the much-younger Ann-Margret. He even tells her at one point, "I have a saddle older than you, Mrs. Lowe." It strikes me as funny, too, that their characters share the same names with his and Geraldine Page's protagonists in 1953's "Hondo."

If I have any criticism, it's that this film feels like a 2-hour TV movie of the week instead of a big budget western. But, it's fun, it offers Wayne a few moments to utter some of his classic throwaway lines ("If anybody crosses that river before we clear out of here, Baptize 'em!") and it's the kind of picture that feels like a familiar old friend after a long, hard day. If popular American cinema is remembered at all in 100 years, surely Duke Wayne and his pictures will be among that number. Don't miss the cute surprise twist at the end and a great near-cameo appearance by Ricardo Montalban.

Film students won't study this one, but, at the end of a crazy work week, who the hell cares? It's Duke Wayne, Ann-Margret, Ben Johnson, Rod Taylor, shootouts and huntin' gold in Texas.

Nuff said.

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