Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Train Robbers (1973)

Directed by Burt Kennedy 
Starring John Wayne, Ann-Margret, Rod Taylor
Rated PG

“Boil it!”

Westerns, like jazz, are one of those things you have to grow into. Nobody wants to sit there and watch old dudes squint and dust blow around for ten minutes at a time or listen to breezy trumpet solos when  they're 17 years old. But add twenty or so years and suddenly, it all makes sense. That's where I'm at now. Sure, I watched Clint Eastwood movies with my dad when I was still a pup back in the 70's, but that was largely because there were only three TV stations back then and we only had one TV. It was either that, or read the same issue of Cracked magazine again for the 20th time. I would not have called myself a fan. But now, holy smokes, I can't get enough of 'em. I usually stick with the ultra-violent spaghetti westerns, though. They've got the cool Morricone soundtracks, the evil bastards, the bright red paint for splattering blood, Klaus Kinski running around like some kind of animal, all that stuff. I haven't really watched any American westerns, and certainly not anything with John Wayne. Until now. Why? Ann Margret.

Ann Margret is, of course, the 60's flame-haired bombshell who starred with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas and Joe Namath in CC and Company, who recorded an album of cowboy psychedelia with Lee Hazelwood and starred in the kooky teen crime-spree classic Kitten With a Whip. Ann Margret sang too loud and danced too hard, and everything she did was drenched in unbridled sexuality. She was as good as the 60's got. And so, when I found out she starred in her own western, how could I resist?

The set-up is as straightforward as can be: Ann-Margret is the widow of a train robber who died in a gunfight in a whorehouse. He stashed half a million in gold out in the desert somewhere, and only she knows where it is. Being a proper lady (and the mother of a young son), she wants to retrieve the money and give it back to the railroad, thusly clearing her family name of any wrongdoing. To secure the loot, she's hired a crusty old cowboy (John Wayne) and his gang of straight-shooters. Since she doesn't quite trust the Duke, she won't tell him exactly where the gold is, so they have to bring her with them. She teases the location out at as they go along.

Of course, any posse of good guys needs a gang of bad guys to chase 'em around. Future Fantasy Island boss Ricardo Montalban leads a band of pistol-packing crazies as they chase our heroes through the desert, intent on grabbing that gold as soon as it's revealed. Wayne insists that Ann Margret wear her clothes as tight as possible so that the bad guys know she's there. Since she's the key to finding the gold, they won't shoot anybody while she's around. Thanks for that one, Duke!

In a surreal moment, the gold is located in an train wreck in the middle of the desert. From there, Wayne and the gang have to fight off Ricardo's men in the desert and then in a tiny town, where things escalate into a literally explosive climax. Seriously, they blow the whole fucking town to smithereens fighting over that fuckin' gold.

It's clear that John Wayne was a couple years past his expiration date here. He only shot a few more movies and died six years after filming this. He's got old man's body and looks visibly creaky. Still, you can see enduring cowboy superstar behind the jowls, and beyond his iffy physicality, he's great in his role as the stoic leader of the gang. Ann Margret is surprisingly subdued (except for a scene where she's supposed to be drunk on whiskey, and she goes full-on Foster Brooks) and the supporting players (including a skittish Christopher George) are solid. There's a lot more horse-galloping than bloodshed, but the desert stand-off and the climactic town-torching are both nail-biters. Also, unlike the spaghetti westerns, The Train Robbers operates with a clear moral compass. There's never any doubt that Wayne and his men are the good guys, or that Ann Margret is anything but a virtuous young lady. And then, amazingly, the last minute of the film upends everything in a funny and jaw-dropping twist.

Over all, great stuff. As I mentioned, if you're young and jumpy, it'll probably move too slow to satisfy, but if you've got the patience for a slow-burn gold chase, The Train Robbers reaps significant rewards.

Plus, Ann-Margret's in it.

- Ken McIntyre 

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