The 1960’s was full of World War II films. Like Westerns, they were the action genre staple for TV and films. Fact or fiction, war films serve up plenty of action.
The genre always fascinated me, not because I like war or the lives it destroys. Like Westerns, it is basically stories of good triumphing over evil.
Burt Lancaster made some great films and The Train was one of them.
The plot was very direct. Stop the Nazis from transporting a train of looted French art to Germany as France was being liberated by the Allies. If you enjoyed George Clooney’s Monument Men, this is a much better film.
Lancaster produced the film, as he did most of his films of this era, and he talked John Frankenheimer, who had directed several Lancaster films, into again stepping behind the camera. Frankenheimer held out, getting concessions of the script, final cut, his name in the title, and a Porsche. If the film was made today it would be 90 percent CGI; instead you get a live-action film of exciting camera work, old school film technique and realistic production design. This was a big production film and Frankenheimer earned that Porsche.
Frankenheimer graduated from live television in the 1950’s, to making taunt dramatic films like Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchuria Candidate and Seven Days in May. These films with Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas pushed Frankenheimer to the upper echelon on filmmakers. The Train was much less dialogue, replaced by wall-to-wall action.
The film was made in gritty black and white photography that emphasized the coal smoke, grime, and the fight between good and evil.
Lancaster played Labiche, the French train-yard boss, who must ensure the train with the art gets out ahead of an Allied air-raid, but as a member of the Resistance, must figure out a way to prevent the train from reaching Germany. The film rides on the back of the Lancaster character.
Labiche, and the Resistance, fool the Nazis, by rerouting the train from reaching the German border, by renaming French rail stations so that the train circles back toward the original departure station. This action is done under the watchful eye of Nazi guards onboard the train including the engine with Labiche and the fireman. The Resistance delays the train by derailing a train engine so that it blocks the tracks, where another engine run into it, and a third engine run into all of them. In retaliation, Labiche is wounded running away and several others involved are gunned down trying to escape.
Labiche’s nemesis was Col. Von Waldheim who was determined to get the art treasures out of France. He is not above lying to his superiors and putting other German troops at risk to accomplish his mission. The great actor Paul Scofield played Von Waldheim, a man who relishes the paintings and believes his appreciation of art makes him superior to commoners like Labiche.
The Train was based on a book by Rose Valland that depicted Nazi theft of artwork during World War II. Arthur Penn was originally hired to direct but was fired soon after production began. Lancaster hired Frankenheimer and the production was reshaped based on changes wanted by both Lancaster and Frankenheimer. The film includes some spectacular train collisions and a thrilling rail yard bombardment that takes place early in the film. Throughout the film, the camera takes you in the sky on aircraft, onboard the train and long tracking camera shots. Frankenheimer uses a variety of methods to put the viewer inside the action.
Lancaster did his own stunts in the film including gliding down a ladder, getting knocked off a moving train, climbing multiple times over a tall wall, running across a bridge where he falls after getting shot, and sliding/rolling down a tall hill.
The premise of the film, protecting artwork didn’t get the Resistance very excited, and it didn’t get film audiences very excited either, the film didn’t make much money at the box office. It is a moody, downbeat film, and the realism of black and white, in a film world where most films were not in color, did not help sell it to mass audiences. There are only two female characters in the film, also a strike against the film’s commercial success, the museum curator has a small part at the beginning of the film, and Jeanne Moreau as Christine, the hotel owner who helps Labiche. There is a hint of attraction between Labiche and Christine, and her covering for his absence with the Germans saved his life, but this is war and romance has to wait. Moreau was one of France’s greatest actresses. Her part is small but pivotal in the story.
The film’s ending, realistic, but very downbeat. Lancaster did not star in many big, bright, feel-good films. He was attracted to serious projects where the line between good and bad is blurred, and inhabited with characters so flawed you can’t tell the heroes from the villains.