1964 - United States / France / Italy - 133 minutes
Director - John Frankenheimer
Writer - Franklin Coen based on a book by Rose Valland
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars
This past week I decided to sit around and watch some of my favorite films about World War II. I started with the superior mini-series, Band of Brothers, continued with Saving Private Ryan, and followed that with the guilty pleasure of Pearl Harbor. I then got a little more serious and watched Nuremburg - a very good made for cable personality drama revolving around the major participants in the trial. After that, I pulled out Patton to watch again, and then ended my orgy of duty, death, and destruction with The Train.
Many who know the other films I mentioned may not be aware of The Train. Of all the films mentioned, it is probably the most thought provoking for it is not about winning battles and defeating a savage enemy. Instead, it is about inherent national pride and the battle of wits between two men.
It is the last few days before the fall of Paris and German Colonel von Waldheim has ordered that hundreds of art treasures be crated and loaded aboard a train and taken to Germany. The curator of the museum seeks the help of French resistance fighters who work on the railroads to hold up the train so that the art can be saved by the arrival of the Allies. Paul Labiche is the leader of the railroad workers and wants nothing to do with such a scheme. He is not a man of culture and doesn't want to risk his life and the lives of his compatriots in order to save a bunch of pictures.
Labiche changes his feeling when an old engineer, Papa Boule, tries to hold up the train and is shot by the Germans. He agrees to stop the train not so much for the art but as a tribute to Boule and the other railway workers who are members of the resistance and to defy von Waldheim who ordered the death of his old mentor.
Thus begins an ingenious plan to trick the Germans into to thinking the train is headed for Germany when it is actually headed back into France.
The Train stars Burt Lancaster as Labiche and Paul Scofield as von Waldheim. This is an action film and Lancaster was one of the great action stars. It is reported that he did his own stunts in the film which is certainly believable. Lancaster was a superior athlete and in top shape at fifty-one when the film was made. He was also a very good actor and easily portrays all of the emotion needed for his part as a thinking working class man.
Paul Scofield who died just recently in March of 2008 was another of filmdom's great actors. He won an Oscar for his role in A Man for All Seasons - my all time favorite film made two years after The Train. He gives us a German officer who has lost his humanity but not his appreciation for art - the best of humanity. He knows there is profit for the German government in stealing the paintings, but he is acutely aware of their value to mankind.
Scofield had one of those old faces, and it is interesting to note that he was nine years younger than Lancaster when they filmed The Train. He certainly looked older than forty-two, and Lancaster looked much younger that fifty-one.
The supporting cast is mostly composed of French actors. Michel Simon is both comic and touching as the old Papa Boule. The beautiful actress, Jeanne Moreau plays a war widow who is weary of the war and occupation by the Germans who is spurred to action by the plight of Labiche. An interesting note here in that filmmakers of the 60's seemed to care little for authentic costumes for the leading female actors. Moreau looks like a 1964 Paris fashion plate rather than a widow in occupied France trying to make a living.
A few years back, I showed The Train to the son of friends who had recently graduated for NYU Film School. He didn't know of the film and was bowled over by its power. I'm afraid that The Train has become one of those great overlooked movies. If you haven't seen it - or haven't seen it since 1964 - I recommend a viewing. You won't be disappointed.
July 28, 2008