Some critics, and even that lesser breed of us, those mere movie observers and hyper film buffs, are rumored to enjoy writing negative reviews, not usually true, except for those few writers who set out to be just that—venomous and abrasive, concocting negativism into a style of sorts and, supposedly, “happy in their work.” In reality, most critics want to enjoy a movie, go to a theater or open a new DVD expecting the best from the director and actors, in the way parents wish the best for their children.
As for The Train, made in 1964, a negative review would be out of place and would reflect suspicion upon the mental state of such a reviewer, and, most important, such an approach would be totally untrue. The film, made in the unusually fertile ’60s—some say a partial rebirth of Hollywood’s golden age—is a rip-snorting adventure film, with just enough serious drama, and historical fact thrown in, to make the film a thoroughly enjoyable experience. At 133 minutes, it never seems long.
There are the authentic train movies, such as Buster Keaton’s silent film The General, The Great Locomotive Chase, also set during the American Civil War, Night Train to Munich, the Basil Rathbone-Sherlock Holmes Terror by Night, The Polar Express, any number of versions of The Lady Vanishes and most obvious, perhaps, Murder on the Orient Express. In Runaway Train, Jon Voight is trapped on a racing train with no engineer and no brakes, a precursor of Speed, though Speed is about a speeding bus, another genre, and, like subways, less exciting, less romantic than trains.
Even a larger number of “train” movies are incorrectly classified, just happening, incidentally, to have a train in them, either for a scene or two or as a picturesque prop, such as Bad Day at Black Rock (in the beginning and at the end), In the Heat of the Night (beginning and end and in the middle) or North by Northwest (in a considerable sequence, granted, and a romantic finish). Not saying these hybrids can’t be excellent. East of Eden, 3:10 to Yuma, The Thin Man, Last Train from Gun Hill and From Russia with Love have only passing involvements with trains. A list of either type of train movie would be close to endless.
With the already passing mention of two Alfred Hitchcock films, it is interesting to consider that director’s fascination with trains, either for dramatic settings or as symbolic conveyors of evil: The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, The Paradine Case and others where trains are even less prominent—say, Suspicion, which opens with Joan Fontaine riding a train, and Marnie, where Tippi Hedren walks a station platform in the first shot.
Another director, David Lean, reveals his own fascination for trains in a large portion of his films, including the meeting of lovers Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter; the usually forgotten The Passionate Friends; Doctor Zhivago; Laurence of Arabia, where Peter O’Toole struts atop derailed train cars; A Passage to India; and, of course, Bridge on the River Kwai where blowing up a Japanese railway bridge is the object of the film, ending in the destruction of both the bridge and the train that starts across it.
Set not only during World War II but in the hectic closing months of the war, The Train is about all kinds of trains and authentic turn-of-the-twentieth-century locomotives, in any number of realistic, uncomputerized circumstances. Trains are seen switching, being repaired and sabotaged, strafed by Allied planes, even derailed and wrecked. In one planned collision, a locomotive went faster than expected and destroyed three of the five cameras set up to record it.
As its director John Frankenheimer said, “I wanted all the realism possible. There are no tricks in this film. When trains crash together, they are real trains. There is no substitute for that kind of reality.”
When the original director, Arthur Penn, seemed to have lost the gist and tempo of the movie, seeing it more as a document of history rather than an adventure film, its main star Burt Lancaster substituted Frankenheimer, who had directed the star in his two previous films, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May. The tempo issue was resolved: nothing slow about this film!
Even though they are losing the war and on the run, the Germans have lost none of their greed, their desperation or their grandiose plans. Before the Allies can reach Paris, the Wehrmacht, headed by Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield, two years away for his Oscar for A Man for All Seasons), plans to take to the fatherland five carloads of art treasures stolen from the Jeu de Paume Museum, paintings by Renoir, Manet, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso and others, the “degenerate” art Nazis so abhor but nonetheless steal and, now, with time running out, are hiding in caves in Germany.
The curator of the museum, Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), alerts the French Resistance. The train must be delayed, diverted, stopped, but not in a way that would damage this heritage of mostly French art. The Villard character is based on a real person, the much-decorated French art historian Rose Antonia Maria Valland, who was a member of the French Resistance and a captain in the French army. She was present at the Jeu de Paume in 1941 when Herrmann Göring came to select paintings for his own collection. She secretly recorded the names of the paintings’ original owners and, in many cases, to where they went; after the war, she assisted in the return of many art treasures to their rightful owners and museums.
During what is now a “normal day” with the Nazis in charge, Paul Labiche (Lancaster), a railway inspector in the marshaling yard of Vaires, supervises the switching during an Allied strafing attack. Lancaster is his stoic self, though maybe a little less tight-jawed than usual and with less flashing of those trademark teeth, but he is still the athletic, commanding presence on screen. With his acrobatic expertise, exhibited especially when he was younger in such swashbucklers as The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, Lancaster does his own stunts—shimmying down a signal tower ladder, boarding a moving locomotive, vaulting walls and rolling down hills.
(Speaking of stunts, there is another actual performance—again, no tricks, but perhaps a technical inaccuracy—where French actor AlbertRémy, playing a Resistance fighter named Didont, uncouples an engine from the trailing cars while the train is moving. The cars themselves slowly roll to a stop, but the engine and tender race on down the track to collide with a standing locomotive. I don’t know about French trains, or French trains in the 1940s, but in the United States, when cars become uncoupled while underway, the brake/air line thus broken, the train goes into emergency and stops, ASAP. There are here a number of other historical and technical goofs to which war films seem especially prone.)
When a massive engine is derailed by the Resistance, the art-loving, art-mad Waldheim insists that the engine be rerailed and orders two cranes, before those irritating Allies arrive. His second-in-command Herren (Wolfgang Preiss) tells him it’s impossible. During the night, the Resistance applies white paint to the tops of the first three box cars of paintings, a sign for Allied planes not to attack the train. When Waldheim’s men start to remove the paint, he orders them to leave it, that it’s his ticket to Germany.
The Resistance at first doesn’t care much about the paintings; sabotaging trains, after all, is one of their missions, and they do it well. Neither does Labiche, at this point, care about the art. But when an old mustachioed engineer (Michel Simon), whose defiant courage is commendable in itself, is shot for trying to sabotage the train, the Resistance decides on a plan to misroute the train. Now Labiche somewhat reluctantly joins them.
In reality, the Resistance deceived the Germans by merely running the train around Paris until the Allies arrived. The film takes a more elaborate and dramatic approach—and comic one, too. Aboard the train, a Nazi (Jean Bouchaud) gleefully marks off on his map the cities they pass—the station signs in northeastern France: Verdun, Metz, Rémilly—true enough—and on into, he thinks, Germany, but the signs of German towns are lettered canvases draped over French station names. The train is actually making a turn south toward central France.
The French Resistance has arranged a collision without damaging the precious art cargo. The leaders are captured and executed, butLabiche, shot in the leg, limps away on foot. (Actually, during production, Lancaster had aggravated a previous knee injury while out golfing, and the limp was written into the script.)
While sleeping over at a railroad-side hotel, to be the engineer for the train next morning, Labiche is provided an alibi by the hotel’s proprietor Christine (Jeanne Moreau) to conceal his clandestine excursions to do a bit of sabotage. A tentative romance is suggested, but neither the story line nor the generally vivace tempo of the film allows for much loitering, and the film hardly suffers from the absence of any further romantic development.
After the train is re-railed, Waldheim places French civilians on the engine to prevent sabotage, but Labiche delays the train by dislodging the spikes that fasten the rails to the crossties. Waldheim sends men ahead on foot to check the track and repair the rails, the train slowing to a crawl. Eventually, the German’s vigilance fails and Labiche succeeds in derailing the train—without injuring the hostages or damaging the art works. In retaliation, Waldheim has the civilian hostages executed and his small contingent of men joins a passing convoy whose officer refuses to transfer the art works to his trucks. Waldheim is left alone with his stranded train. “His” train, always his train.
In their final confrontation, Labiche is taunted by Waldheim for having no appreciation for great art: “A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. . . . Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. [The paintings] will always belong to me, or a man like me.” Labiche, pretty much unconcerned about “art for art’s sake” from the beginning, looks at the dead Frenchmen the Germans have just killed and shoots Waldheim. Labiche then limps away, leaving the train and its paintings.
Lancaster is practically alone in a mostly French cast and a sufficient number of German actors to comprise the disloyal opposition. This “observer” of films is probably among the many American viewers who will see few familiar faces, but I did recognize two French actors from the largely French-set Charade. Jacques Marin, the police inspector Grandpierre in that Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant caper, is the stationmasterin The Train; he reroutes the art train—at the cost of his life. Paul Bonifas, the stamp dealer in Charade, has an even smaller part as Spinet, a Resistance fighter.
As for the German actors, Wolfgang Preiss is more familiar to many, if not by name, then as the standard Nazi, real and imaginary: in The Longest Day, Anzio (as Kesselring), Von Ryan’s Express, A Bridge Too Far (as Rundstedt), The Boys from Brazil and the TV mini-series, The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance (as Brauchitsch). And these are just his American films, not to mention his many native German ones. He died in 2002, age 92.
Richard Münch, who played General Jodl in Patton, is cast as the officer who first denies Waldheim authority for his train, then approves it. Arthur Brauss, in a look-quick-to-see role as Pilzer, has made an enormous number of German films, though his few English-language ones involving Nazis include Von Ryan’s Express, Cross of Iron and John Huston’s Victory,
One exciting highlight of The Train is the sequence where Labiche, at the controls of a lone locomotive, flees the strafing of an Allied fighter, racing down the track for the cover of a tunnel. Sure, he’s far exceeding the speed limit for engine and track, but, hell, man, this is war! Labiche reaches the tunnel and brakes before he runs the engine out the other side. The scene was based on an actual incident in WorldWar II, in another theater of the war.