Monday, September 14, 2015

Steve’s Selections #9 – The Train (1964)

We have come to the ninth of twelve movie selections Steve Honeywell at 1001plus has made for me.  This one is The Train, a World War II-set action film about an attempted art heist.  I’ll be honest: despite the fact that this movie stars Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield I had never heard of it before Steve picked it for me to watch and review.  After I got done watching I was surprised by this because it is a damn entertaining film.  Everything that was missing from The Monuments Men (2014) is gotten right in The Train.

The film opens in the days just before the Allies are going to liberate Paris from the Germans.  A Nazi Colonel Von Waldheim (Scofield) is an art aficionado who has personally brought together an unbelievable collection of works from every French artist you can name.  He plans to take them with him back to Germany, but they are so numerous that he needs a train in which to transport them.  He has to convince the German High Command in Paris that “some pretty paintings” are worth taking when the train that will transport them could instead save soldiers and war materials.

The person in charge of the main train yard in Paris is Labiche (Lancaster).  He is also in the French resistance.  A woman warns him and others that Von Waldheim is going to make off with priceless French art treasures, but Labiche doesn’t see the point.  He and the few others remaining in the Resistance are reluctant to stick their necks out when in just a few more days the Nazis will be gone and Paris will be liberated.  If anything, they want to destroy any and all trains the Germans are on in order to wreak as much damage as possible on them.  In fact, they know an Allied air raid is coming and intentionally stall the Germans at the train yard until the attack occurs.

They get orders from the French government in exile to save the art treasures at all cost, though.  Von Waldheim sends the art train on its way before the attack starts and there’s a tense scene as the train tries to make its way through and beyond the attack zone without getting destroyed.  Shortly after that, though, the engineer sabotages the engine so it has to be brought back for repairs.  The Nazis shoot him without a second thought, and although they suspect Labiche had something to do with it they need him to repair the engine. 

There’s a great, unbroken shot where we see Lancaster really handling molten metal, pouring it into a mold, breaking off the extraneous bits from the part he is making, and then fitting the part into where it needs to go.  There’s no faking; it was actually Lancaster doing that.  More on this in a bit.

Once Labiche gets the engine fixed Von Waldheim orders him to man the engine, figuring he’d rather have Labiche where he can see him and that that will eliminate any destruction Labiche might have planned.  Labiche now has a hell of a problem – how does he keep these priceless treasures from reaching Germany, but without risking their destruction by doing something to the moving train?  The answer is quite ingenious, if not really realistic.

I mentioned the shot with Lancaster really handling molten metal.  In fact, he actually did all of his own stunts in the movie, despite turning 50 while filming was going on.  This includes several shots of getting on and off a moving train, handling connections and disconnections of engines to moving train cars, and a section that requires him to scale and descend a hill with about a 45 degree pitch to it.  He did the hill scene with an injured leg, too.  He had hurt his knee on an off day from filming so director John Frankenheimer wrote an injury into the movie to explain why Lancaster was limping.

Speaking of Frankenheimer, he was not the original director.  That was going to be Arthur Penn (1962’s The Miracle Worker) who envisioned a more cerebral film about the importance of art to people.  Lancaster didn’t like this vision, so he had Penn fired after only one day of shooting.  He had Frankenheimer, who he had worked with on The Birdman of Alcatraz, brought in.  Frankenheimer agreed on a more action-oriented movie.  I don’t know if this firing had anything to do with it, but just three years later Penn would go on to do the very violent for the time film Bonnie and Clyde.

The Train gets almost everything right.  There’s good tension, there’s some good action, and one thing that is great is it’s real.  They really crash multiple trains.  They really have the actors doing the train functions.  The scene where a crane is lifting a damaged locomotive engine is real.  It all adds a great sense of scale to everything.  There is also a sense of danger since multiple characters we meet and come to like end up paying the ultimate price for their actions.

If I had any quibble with the movie it’s a subplot where Lancaster takes some time out from trying to save the art to make a possibly romantic connection with a beautiful French widow (Jeanne Moreau) who runs a hotel.  It’s not that either did a bad job in their scenes; this side story just feels a little extraneous to everything else in the movie.  At least these scenes were kept to a minimum.

Overall that is not really that big a deal.  The Train is a very good action film with some great sequences and lots of tension.  Unless that doesn’t sound like something you’d like then I highly recommend this movie to you.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


  1. I was really impressed with this, and I agree about the comment on The Monuments Men. For as uneven as that film was, The Train was focused (mostly) and on target.

    I think the romantic subplot happened because, well, at the time every movie needed a romantic subplot. Remade today, that would likely be left out to the film's ultimate benefit.

    1. Or not. Studios seem to still think that women won't go see a movie unless there's some romance in it. Look at The Two Towers, for instance.