The Kitten & The Cowboy: When Ann-Margret Met The Duke

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THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973) airs on TCM August 12 at 4PM EST/1PM PST

When I spotted Ann-Margret on the August cover of TCM’s Now Playing guide I jumped for joy and then I pulled out my treasured autographed copy of her 1994 autobiography, My Life, and did some rereading. I hadn’t looked at the book in years and thought it might inspire me to write something about the actress for the Movie Morlocks and sure enough, it did. What caught my eye was a photo of Ann-Margret with John Wayne (pictured above) accompanied by the line “Duke always had me laughing on the set of THE TRAIN ROBBERS. He was an extraordinary man.”

THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973) was made in 1972 during an interesting period in both Ann-Margret and John Wayne’s careers. After appearing in various European sex farces, spy spoofs and biker movies, the multi-talented redhead was finally shedding her “sex kitten” image after delivering a standout performance in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971), which had earned her an Oscar nomination. John Wayne on the other hand, had fought cancer and won after having a lung removed and although the disease would eventually take his life, he seemed to be recovering. But the old-fashioned 65-year-old actor didn’t care for the direction modern Hollywood was taking and often found himself under fire due to his right leaning stance on the Vietnam War among other hot-button political issues at the time. He began focusing much of his attention on managing his own production company called Batjac Production (named after a fictitious trading company mentioned in Wayne’s 1948 film WAKE OF THE RED WITCH) so he could make the kind of movies that he wanted to see and star in. THE TRAIN ROBBERS was just one of a handful of westerns Wayne’s company produced in the 1970s along with CHISUM (1970), RIO LOBO (1970), BIG JAKE (1971) and CAHILL U.S. MARSHALL (1973) and while I’m definitely in the minority, I think it’s the most interesting and entertaining of the bunch.

Directed and written by Burt Kennedy, who had helmed a number of westerns, and shot in widescreen Panavision and Technicolor by Wayne’s longtime cohort, cinematographer William H. Clothier, the film’s beauty is undeniable. However, what makes it so unique is its minimalist style and lean script combined with operatic flourishes that recall some of the best Italian westerns of the time. The film opens with an impressive long shot of a dust covered train station and anyone familiar with Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) will recognize the homage immediately. It takes a considerable amount of time before Dominic Frontiere’s score kicks in, which allows an eerie silence to permeate the proceedings punctuated by the environmental sounds of the western landscape such as squeaky saloon doors, horse hoofs and rusty train wheels. Once the scene is set, we’re introduced to a cast of wisecracking antiheroes that includes Rod Taylor, Ben Johnson, Christopher George and pop singer Bobby Vinton before John Wayne arrives in town by train accompanied by Ann-Margret. Wayne’s character is called Lane and Ann-Margret is introduced as Mrs. Lowe recalling characters in HONDO (1953) but the similarities end there. Wayne is a much harder and grizzled man now while Ann-Margret’s pretty petticoats hide a whiskey-drinking, gun-wise dame who’s much smarter and shrewder than the tough men she surrounds herself with.

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Part crime caper and chase film with a subtle sense of humor, THE TRAIN ROBBERS refuses to define itself by simplistic western tropes and its reputation has probably suffered for it. Nevertheless, the unusual blend of genres combined with some stunning cinematography and a script that ends with a surprising twist is why I find it so worthwhile. I also enjoy the banter between the aging Ben Johnson and Rod Taylor that’s occasionally interrupted by John Wayne barking out softball curses like “peckerwood” while threatening to kick everyone in the “butt.”

Wayne is surprisingly dirty and downtrodden here foregoing many of the familiar character traits that had defined him earlier in his career while still maintaining a heroic stance. No longer interested in playing a romantic lead, he even turns down Ann-Margret’s kittenish advances at one point by telling her “I got a saddle that’s older than you are, Mrs. Lowe.” It’s a standout moment because Wayne and Ann-Margret have genuine chemistry on screen and you can’t help but wish the two characters might end up together despite their age differences and that was largely due to the friendship they had developed behind the cameras.

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In her autobiography, Ann-Margret writes in some detail about her experience on set working with Wayne on THE TRAIN ROBBERS. It was her first western and naturally, she was nervous, especially working with the world’s most beloved cowboy but she had bigger fears to overcome, including her fear of horses.

“When I was ten, a horse had tried to bit me at a carnival and I was scared of horses ever since. In fact, I’d never ridden again. But THE TRAIN ROBBERS was an honest-to-goodness western and I had to ride; there was no way around it.

For three weeks before filming I received riding lessons from Chuck Heyward, an excellent horseman who’d worked as a stuntman with Duke for twenty-three years. By the time I got in front of the camera in Durango, Mexico, I felt pretty brave. But then the horse they gave me to ride wasn’t the one I’d practiced on, and my confidence disappeared.

The very first shot was at midnight. We had to gallop across a patch of desert, then halt on a specific mark. By the time director Burt Kennedy yelled “action,” I’d worked myself into a state, though I thought no one could tell. I was wrong. Duke rode up beside me, sipping a bottle of mineral water, as calm and at home as could be. He winked.

“Are you okay, little lady?” he asked.

Now, I’d really become acquainted with Duke–well enough to feel comfortable calling him Duke. But how do you tell John Wayne you’re scared to ride? I smiled, and he offered me a sip from his water bottle; I think he noticed my hand shake while taking the water.

“What’s wrong?” he asked again.

“Well,” I said, “I’m a little afraid of horses.”

It was late at night. The only sounds were the muffled grunts of horses, insect chirps, and John Wayne chuckling.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen, I’ll see to that.”

Despite having a cancerous lung removed earlier, Duke was still a strong, formidable man, larger-than-life and incredibly personable. He was a big teddy bear, and we got along famously. Duke gave me the confidence I lacked.”
- Ann-Margret, My Story

The experience was a bonding moment between Ann-Margret and Wayne and the two stayed in touch long after filming had ended. In a 2001 interview with Larry King, the actress was asked about her experience working with Wayne and the impact he had made on her. Her response was emotional and it was obvious that the Hollywood cowboy had made a lasting impression on her.

LARRY KING: Why does everybody love him? The Duke.

ANN-MARGRET: Well. First of all, you know, when he hugs you, when he embraced you, you know, where am I? I’m lost. And he had the biggest hands, you know, he’d shake your hands, and you felt like a little baby. And he was so great to my parents. Do you remember?

LARRY KING: Really? In other words, he went out of his way to be kind.

ANN-MARGRET: Yes. And you know, I remember a couple of times when we were in Durango, Mexico doing this film, THE TRAIN ROBBERS, and I rode with him a couple times. I was in the back seat; he was in the front. And he was so big, I mean, he practically took over the whole two seats, had the window open. And everyone was, in the fields, I mean, they were — they all knew Duke. And he just was — well, I remember once he, when I was ill, he went on The Johnny Carson Show to accept an award for me.

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Last year, the 74-year-old actress was a guest of honor at the fourth annual John Wayne film Festival in Texas organized to help raise funds and awareness for the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. She introduced THE TRAIN ROBBERS to an adoring audience and when asked by reporters why she was there she responded by saying:

“It’s for Mr. John Wayne. I just always … I loved him so much. He was so great to my mother and father. He was such a true patriot. He was strong, and he was loyal, committed, just a bunch of things.”

amw04As I’ve already mentioned, there are plenty of good reasons to tune in to TCM today and catch THE TRAIN ROBBERS. But one of the most enduring aspects of the film is the way it indirectly captured the beginning of a lifelong friendship between a beautiful young redheaded performer in her prime and an aging Hollywood legend as he was getting ready to take his last ride into the sunset.

11 Responses The Kitten & The Cowboy: When Ann-Margret Met The Duke
Posted By Emgee : August 13, 2015 7:10 pm

John Wayne paying homage to Sergio Leone? That beggars belief.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 13, 2015 7:38 pm

To be honest, Burt Kennedy was probably just ripping off Leone (who borrowed from plenty of filmmakers himself) but I was being polite by calling it a “homage.”

Posted By Michael : August 13, 2015 8:13 pm

Back in ’73, I saw this with a friend. He thought it was boring, but I liked it. Found it too a very enjoyable western. Watched it again a few weeks ago and I still enjoy it. I find it “comfortable” movie. Not much there but what is there is good.

Posted By Susannah : August 13, 2015 8:32 pm

i was just about to bypass this film when I saw and read your post. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Love A-M!

Posted By Mike D : August 13, 2015 9:16 pm

Burt Kennedy used the names Lowe and Lane for Nancy Gates and Claude Akins in Comanche Station.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 14, 2015 1:38 am

Very sweet. A nice tribute to a movie that doesn’t get much respect.

Posted By Jenni : August 14, 2015 1:42 pm

I’ve not seen this movie, but had seen the others you listed. Now I’m going to check our guide list on our cable device and hopefully I’m not too late to record this film-enjoyed your post very much!

Posted By Ben Martin : August 14, 2015 2:56 pm

I’m hooked. Thanks for the warm and wonderful post. Now i’m going to look for her biography.

Posted By swac44 : August 25, 2015 9:05 pm

I’m just coming around to a lot of Wayne’s 1970s work, recently enjoyed his fish-out-of-water cop film Brannigan, about a Chicago cop chasing mobster John Vernon to London, where he teams up with Richard Attenborough and Judy Geeson. Fun stuff, although apparently not a hit at the box office (which apparently was also the case with his other stab at playing Dirty Harry, McQ). The London locales and cast are a big part of what makes it fun to watch, including a scene where Wayne tosses Tony Richardson (a.k.a. Baldrick from Blackadder into the Thames).

Missed The Train Robbers when it aired this month (although I did catch a couple of other Ann-Margret titles I’d missed previously), but as luck would have it, I just scored a bargain-priced copy of the 5-film blu-ray set John Wayne Westerns, that also includes another ’70s title I haven’t seen, Cahill: U.S. Marshall. Unfortunately, it means I’ll also be getting my umpteenth copy of The Searchers, but it’ll be nice to finally have high-res copies of Fort Apache and Rio Bravo.

Posted By Jim : September 15, 2015 3:41 pm

I happen to love Wayne’s 70′s era westerns–’The Cowboys’ being the best of the bunch–because that was the era I started going to the movies and was a big fan of both the genre and the Duke. I also think Burt Kennedy is an underrated western director. ‘The Train Robbers’ might not be a classic but it’s got a great cast, cinematography, action, and it’s fun.
I think the above description of it being a ‘comfortable’ movie is spot on. Sometimes those are just the kind of movies you’re in the mood for.

Posted By robbushblog : October 5, 2015 2:42 pm

Mike D- It’s funny that you mention that, because he even stole a line from HONDO as well for COMANCHE STATION. Claude Akins says to Nancy gates, “You’re a good cook, Mrs. Lowe. A woman SHOULD be a good cook. I’m a good cook myself.” Duke says that same line to Geraldine Page in HONDO.

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