Thursday, August 1, 2013

CRACKER? Von Ryan's Express (1965)

              “Von Ryan’s Express” is a prison escape / chase film hybrid.  It is a star vehicle for Frank Sinatra and he gives one of his most memorable performances.  His most memorable if you were a teenage boy when the movie came out in 1965.  It was ably directed by Mark Robson (“The Bridges at Toko-Ri”).  It is based on a novel by David Westheimer, but Sinatra insisted the ending be changed.  The movie was a big hit, but has been largely forgotten.

                Words tell us the movie is set in WWII Italy right before the Allied invasion.  Col. Ryan (Sinatra) is a hot-shot (is there any other type?) American P-38 (that is a real P-38!) pilot who gets shot down and captured by the Italians.  They treat him well as Hollywood was not interested in demonizing Italians at this point.  I don’t think Sinatra and his Mafia cronies would have appreciated that.  Ryan is taken to a POW camp run by a Blackshirt Major Battaglia (he’s Italian, but a Fascist).  The camp is predominantly British, but Ryan’s rank puts him in command.  He immediately butts heads with the ranking Brit Maj. Fincham (Trevor Howard) because the Brits are obsessed with escaping and Ryan thinks the war will be over soon so it’s ridiculous to risk lives.  To add fuel to the fire, Ryan forbids escape attempts and even tells Battaglia about an escape tunnel in exchange for better treatment for the men.  The Brits begin to put “Von” in front of Ryan’s name.  However, when the commandant reneges, Ryan has the men go nude and burn their ragged uniforms.  We get to see some cheeky cheeks.  Ha ha!  This earns Ryan a stay in the “sweat box”, but some grudging respect from the Brits.
Sinatra and Howard - two teen idols
               News of the Italian government’s surrender causes all the guards to return to civilianhood.  The POWs want to execute Battaglia, but Ryan intervenes and gets him commuted to the sweat box.  How this is more humane escapes me.  The Italian second in command Capt. Oriani (Sergio Fantoni) joins up because he’s a good Italian.  The POWs escape into the countryside, but are soon recaptured by the Germans guided by a sneering Battaglia.  The wounded prisoners are killed and the survivors are loaded on a train. 

                Ryan organizes the take-over of the train in a good scene and they have an uneventful run to Switzerland.  Just kidding.  Complications arise.  First, there is a SS Major and his bimbo.  The Italian bombshell was possibly inserted for fourteen year old boys.  This subplot is very lame, but does lead to a nice twist.  After this sidetrack, the train is back on track and attempting to outrun a Nazi train.  There is a lot of “The Train” in this part of the film.  Much of their schemes are implausibly, but entertainingly successful in duping the clueless Germans.  At one point they run through a railyard while it is being bombarded (see “The Train”).  Look, there are the Alps!  Almost to Switzerland – piece of cake, right?  Just have to make it through these picturesque cliff-side tunnels while maintaining their lead over those pesky Germans.

Trevor Howard gets a date with a hot chick
                Oh, oh!  Are those ME-109s (actually their bastard obese brothers ME-108s)?  Their missiles make a mess of the track and it has to be repaired plus the German pursuers must be held off.  Here comes the big set piece combat scene and it is well worth the wait.  The setting in a tunnel is cool and there is lots of bloodshed.  This is done with no score - nice touch.  It is also nicely suspenseful although we never doubt the train will escape at the last second.  What is surprising is what happens to Ryan.  It’s right up there with Old Yeller and Sgt. Stryker for my generation.  Although it is closest to Jefferson in “The Dirty Dozen”.  Why couldn’t they both run faster, damn it?

                “Von Ryan’s Express” was a family favorite with myself and my brothers.  Although not in a league with “The Great Escape”, it is crackerjack entertainment.  The final scene was stuck in my mind although I had not seen the movie in decades.  I have to say that it held up pretty well.  It is well acted, especially by Sinatra.  His performance is reminiscent of Richard Burton in “Where Eagles Dare”.  Truthfully, without Sinatra, the movie would be forgettable.  The decision to film it in Italy was a good one.  The section in the mountains is particularly scenic and perfect for the situation.  The studio also went to the trouble of constructing the prison camp.  You have to admire the effort.  The film was nominated for Best Special Effects even though I did not find anything spectacular in it.  The sound track is by Jerry Goldsmith, but it is nothing special.  At least it is not pompous.  Kudos for the use of maps to explain where they are and that makes the changes in the plan more comprehensible.  Why don’t more war movies use maps effectively? 

bring on the nightmares, again
                For a movie that posits a totally impossible scenario, it does not come off as head-shakingly ridiculous.  It is average in implausibility for this subgenre that includes “The Guns of Navarone” and others.  It’s big problem is that for a mash-up of “The Train” and “The Great Escape”, it is vastly inferior to either of those films.  Still, nice try and it deserves more remembrance.  Cracker?  It has a chance.




  1. The novel was on the approved list in my high school, and I remember a classmate who did a book report on it. He actually sounded disappointed when he said, "Von Ryan didn't get killed in the book."

  2. What school was that? I wish I had gone there. That is what I meant by Sinatra insisted the ending be changed. A good call on his part, I would say. It certainly made the movie more memorable!

    1. It was a public school in Decatur, Ga (Atlanta suburb). BTW, IIRC, William Holden insisted that the ending of "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" not be changed. That meant that his character, like Sinatra's, died at the end of the movie. Re: Jefferson's death in "The Dirty Dozen," it was a convention in the late 1960's that Jim Brown always got killed. "100 Rifles" shocked audiences, not because Raquel got killed, but because Jim survived.

  3. Very interesting. Actually there is a tradition in suicide mission movies that the minorities do not survive so Brown's death is typical. In the case of "Bridges", that book was a best seller so having a happy ending would not have worked plus it would have gone completely against the vibe of the story. Are you saying that Jim Brown was the Sean Bean of his day?


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