Monday, June 13, 2011

#62 - "The Train"

BACK-STORY: “The Train” is a war movie directed by John Frankenheimer that was released in 1964. It is based on a non-fiction book entitled Le Front de l’Art by Rose Valland. The film was originally helmed by Arthur Penn, but co-producer and star Burt Lancaster axed him because Penn wanted to make more of a character study and Lancaster insisted the action be revved up. The film was shot on location in France. No models were used. Those are all real trains crashing and getting blown up. The air bombardment of the marshalling yard was symbiotic because the French government wanted the area cleared anyway. (That less than one minute scene required fifty men wiring TNT for six weeks.) Lancaster (51) did all of his stunts. This included sliding down a hillside. When he injured his knee stepping in a hole while golfing, it was written into the script that he would be wounded while fleeing under fire. One scene where the train races into a tunnel to avoid a strafing Spitfire was added to have an additional action sequence. Frankenheimer was almost killed when the helicopter he was filming from came within ten feet of being hit by the Spitfire.

OPENING: The movie opens in Paris on August 2, 1941 (the 1511st day of occupation), just days away from Allied liberation. A German officer Col. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) visits an art gallery where the Nazis have concentrated much of the French masterpieces they have stolen. The curator Mlle. Villard (based on the author Valland) thanks him for being a non-typical Nazi in that he admires art. He says “I’ve often wondered at the curious conceit that would attempt to determine taste and ideas by decree.” She is stunned when he suddenly orders the paintings to be crated up to be removed to a “safe place” in Germany.  It is unclear whether he is an art lover or simply a thief.

SUMMARY: Von Waldheim becomes obsessed with getting the train loaded with the art out of Paris. He considers it more important than military trains. We first meet his adversary Labiche (Lancaster) on a long tracking shot as he tries to flag down a train, slides down a ladder, runs along the tracks, and jumps aboard the moving train. Labiche runs the rail yard, but is also a leader in the Resistance. He is visited by Villard who makes a passionate case for delaying the art train because the art is part of the glory of France. Labiche is unimpressed and points out that his cell started with eighteen men and is now down to three. “I won’t waste lives for paintings.” Besides, their top priority is delaying a military train so it is still in the yard when a scheduled bombing raid takes place.

In a terrific scene, the bombardment catches both trains in the yard, but a crusty old engineer named Poppa Boule races the art train through the explosions to save the precious cargo. (This iconic scene used 140 explosions involving 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline.) Boule (who has decided on his own to help Mlle. Villard) has sabotaged the engine, but he is discovered and executed. His death shames Labiche into taking on the task of delaying the train.

When the train heads for Germany, Labiche hatches an elaborate plan to fool the Germans by changing the names of stations they pass to hide the fact the train is actually heading in the wrong direction. Finally, Labiche cuts the engine loose and leaps free leading to the locomotive colliding head on into a disabled locomotive in a spectacular crash that destroyed several of the cameras filming it. Labiche takes refuge in a hotel where a jaded, but sympathetic French widow (Jean Moreau) aids him. “Men want to be heroes, but their widows mourn” says the war-weary Christine.

Word arrives from London that the art boxcars must be saved from an upcoming bombardment by having the roofs painted white so the bombers will bypass them. Labiche thinks this is crazy, but after some ranting, agrees to try it. During the night, a fake air raid siren causes the Germans to cut the lights allowing for the whitewashing of the roofs. This saves the art from the bombardment, but allows Von Waldheim to now move by daylight without being strafed.

Labiche blows up the tracks in front of the train, but the Germans repair it and add hostages riding on the locomotive to dissuade Labiche from further sabotage. Undeterred, Labiche loosens a rail causing the train to derail – end of journey.

CLOSING: Von Waldheim flags down a military convoy and tries to force the commander to replace his troops with the crates of art. The major is not cowed and refuses. He does pick up Von Waldheim’s men, however. Before the convoy moves on, the hostages are machine gunned. Von Waldheim stays behind for a final confrontation with Labiche. Labiche shows up, sees the dead hostages, and approaches Von Waldheim with a submachine gun. The German taunts him:

Labiche! Here's your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Give you a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck: you stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche -- a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine; they always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it! They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did.

Labiche lets his machine gun do his retort. (In fact, Labiche only speaks once in the last 33 minutes of the film.)


Action - 9

Acting - 9

Accuracy – 7

Realism - 7

Plot - 9

Overall – 9

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. The story is stirring, the action is suspenseful, and the acting is strong. There are two notable female characters. Burt Lancaster is a real man. The deaths are not graphic.

ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly based on a true story. The book is supposedly a real nail biter, but in reality the Resistance used paper work and red tape to delay the departure of the train and then put it on a loop around Paris until the Allies arrived. The Spitfire attack was also based on an actual incident, but not involving the art train. The activities of a train station and marshalling yard are authentically depicted.  Other than Villard, all the main characters are fictional.

CRITIQUE: This is a remarkable movie. Frankenheimer described it as the last great action movie made in black and white. It is hard to imagine it in color and colorizing it would be a sacrilege on a par with “Casablanca”. The cinematography is crisp and the railway yard comes off as appropriately gritty and busy. The long tracking shots are awesome and you see a lot of the Frankenheimer style (interesting angles and close-ups) in the way the movie is filmed.

The acting is great. Lancaster is in top form. He portrays the complexity of Labiche. Labiche is cynical, yet patriotic. He becomes just as obsessed as Von Waldheim. Scofield is an effective foil. He is not your typical Nazi. He is cultural, yet ruthless. He disobeys orders and schemes. The rest of the cast is memorable, especially Michael Simon as Papa Boule and Jacques Marin as the stationmaster. The trains do a great acting job as well. The musical score by Maurice Jarre is fine, but it is overshadowed by the sounds of a working railway and the trains themselves.

The one flaw in the movie is it is pretty preposterous at times. The Germans have to be clueless to be fooled by the changing of the station names. The idea that bombers could avoid hitting some box cars because they are painted white gives too much credit to bombing accuracy. Although the French Resistance was probably not as efficient (or lucky), the movie gives a good look at the dedication of its members and the incredible risks they took. It is an homage to these brave men.

The theme of the movie is thought provoking. Is a nation’s cultural heritage worth men’s lives? This is the question Labiche has to answer. It is unclear, even at the end, what his answer is. Considering he is the only good guy left alive at the end, the viewer could come to the conclusion that the art was not worth it.

CONCLUSION: “The Train” is a very entertaining movie that shows how there are advantages to not having color or CGI. It has everything that makes going to movies an enjoyable experience. It is underrated at #62.


  1. I went many years without even knowing about this movie. Just happened on it on TV one day. Other then Elmer Gantry this is prob Lancaster's best performance. You can tell he really loved this role. He is a force of nature in this one. Paul Scofield is also excellent and a perfect counterpoint to Lancaster's moody protagonist.
    Good example of a movie that is better in black and white. Trains just seem more dynamic in B/W. Gives it a gritty quality. Lancaster obviously doing his own stunts helps alot. One of the last of the "man's man" actors. The suspense of this one is very well directed and builds just like a moving train.
    Very well written as you noted. Especially the confrontation conversation at the end mentioned. Just because "evil" appears more cultural doesnt mean it is better. The scenes with Jean Moreau are underplayed just right. Just two people scarred by the war attracted to each other by circumstance. But Lancaster has a job to do. So it doesnt get sappy.
    Though i usually hate remakes this one could be remade with the right two actors and with a strong director. Maybe on HBO. The story is original and in a way timeless.
    Good review.

  2. the war movie buffJune 21, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    Thanks. Many of the old black and whites do not hold up well but this one is an exception. It is timeless. I kind of agree with the desire for the remake, but I can see much potential for disappointment. I fear the Michael Bay type of extreme pyrotechnics. I would prefer they remake movies that were okay, but not great and did not reach their potential. For instance, The Horse Soldiers.


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