With such recent flops as "Silverado" and "Rustler's Rhapsody" just about sealing the casket on the Western film--in movie theaters, anyway--fans of the genre might as well place most of their hope in television.
No, there isn't likely to be a resurgence of "adult Western" series, but TV movies still get made on sagebrush themes, and often do well in the ratings.
"Once Upon a Texas Train," the "CBS Sunday Movie" (9-11 p.m., Channels 2 and 8) should do very well. It stars a wagon full of grizzled stars and noted character actors, and--until a wheel comes off in the last half-hour--it's a pleasant trip.
Grab a breath, partner, and take a gander at this cast: Willie Nelson, Richard Widmark, Angie Dickinson, Chuck Connors, Ken Curtis, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Kevin McCarthy, Stuart Whitman and Shaun Cassidy.
Watching this bunch of veterans go through their paces (and keep their careers alive) is a treat enough in itself--Elam is especially flavorful as feisty Jason Fitch--and if youngun Cassidy seems out of place in that lineup, never you mind. He gives a surprisingly good accounting as a leader of a youthful gang, coming across something like a young Bruce Dern.
If you've ever seen the 1969 TV movie "The Over-the-Hill Gang" then you have a good idea of what plot-line "Once Upon a Texas Train" takes. Instead of "Over-the-Hill" 's Walter Brennan-led ex-Texas Rangers, we get a pack of sexagenarian-and-up ex-train/bank robbers, led by Nelson, vs. some similar-aged lawmen, headed up by Widmark. As a third force in the conflict, to confuse an increasingly confused story, comes Cassidy's pack of young whippersnappers.
Writer-director Burt Kennedy (himself an old hand at Westerns) didn't seem to have quite thought out his promising, then faltering, tale. He apparently spent most of his concentration on a lot of silly, somewhat ageist but frequently enjoyable kidding of gunslingers-turned-geezers and wistful lamenting about times gone, traditions lost, etc. (a common staple of the self-referentially nostalgic modern Western).
But until things go really awry toward the end, Kennedy provides "Train" with plenty of the same gently satirical humor and authentic big-sky feeling he gave his fine 1969 feature "Support Your Local Sheriff!" His smoothly professional direction is full of fine touches, enhanced by Ken Lamkin's photography and Warner Leighton's editing.