Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 13, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
As 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.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns