A Wayne, A Train and a Lane
"The Train Robbers" is a little bit of a strange western as it has a touch of the traditional about it, the good guys versus the bad and the old fashioned moral conduct but then it has a touch of the new with a styling which feels alomst out of tune with the story. It's as if director Burt Kennedy took an old western and tried to give it a touch of the Sergio Leone and in a way it works but not all the time. "The Train Robbers" is certainly a different looking western, minimal when it comes to characters and employing an almost baron, uncluttered land scape where even the skies are cloudless. In fact it all feels a little experimental as if Kennedy wanted to breathe new life into the old style western by trying different things which include a heavier dose of comedy than you may expect.
Old cowboy Lane (John Wayne - The Cowboys) puts together a small band of men to help the widow Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret - Viva Las Vegas) retrieve a fortune in gold that her husband stole. But instead of keeping it she wants to return it to the rightful owner to give her and her son a fresh start. The only trouble is that Mrs. Lowe is not the only one who is after the gold and there is a group of cowboys hot on their trail as they head south in search of an abandoned train which holds the gold.
Now the story to "The Train Robbers" is very traditional as we watch a group of cowboys helping a wdowed woman recover a stash of stolen gold and protecting her from those who are also after it. It allows for plenty of old style action as we have some spectacular gun fights as well as lively banter between the cowboys. But whilst traditional it does have a sort of uniqueness about it especially in what ends up a wonderful twist which turns things on its head just as you think that it's all over.
But then with this traditional story you have a touch of the modern and with it set against an uncluttered back drop a lot of the movie focuses on the character interactions. We learn all about the heroic Lane via a series of campfire scenes as his friend Jesse tells Mrs. Lowe how they became acquainted. And at the same time we watch how Lane's honesty and fairness influences the young cowboys who are part of his group. It certainly gives "The Train Robbers" a different feel because whilst not a character examination it is a movie all about the character interactions and friendships.
And this touch of the new also comes in the form of plenty of light hearted comedy from an early scene where we watch Lane ball out the young cowboys who join him through to the way he wants Mrs. Lowe to wear a tight shirt so that it is very clear to those who follow that she is a woman. It feels very different to those traditional westerns whilst still managing to have the tradition running through it.
And that traditional blended with the new also shows itself in the whole look from the opening which is deviod of music and action through to the landscapes. Where as once a cloud littered sky and a rocky terrain would be the stuff of westerns now we have a clear sky and a baron, desert landscape, barely any buildings and only one river. It really brings a new approach to an old style movie and makes it frankly more interesting.
As for the performances well in a movie which is short on characters and features Ann-Margret, Ben Johnson, Ricardo Montaliban and Rod Taylor it does all end up being about John Wayne as Lane. And to be honest John Wayne delivers John Wayne when it comes to Lane, being this heroic cowboy who has underlying morals. But because this is Wayne as a cowboy against an uncluttered backdrop it sort of becomes a look at why Wayne is the ultimate traditional cowboy. Through the way he acts and those camp fire monologues it almost explains why Wayne was a western idol to many. It doesn't mean that the likes of Mrs Lowe, Grady and Jesse are 2 dimensional characters as Burt Kennedy fleshes them out through the character interactions but it almost all revolves around why Lane and in a way Wayne is such a hero.
What this all boils down to is that "The Train Robbers" is an interesting western as it tries to combine old with a new style. It sort of works and with the uncluttered backdrops and minimal characters it is interesting whilst also managing to deliver the traditional action and heroics which you expect. But it feels almost experimental and as such occassionaly doesn't feel quite right in places.