The Train Review
There is a genuinely compelling story to tell about Nazis and stolen art during the Second World War. Somewhat, George Clooney didn’t manage to do it in his Monuments Men despite a very interesting cast and the means necessary for a persuasive reconstitution. In 1964, John Frankenheimer managed to successfully do it with one of his best movies, The Train.
France, 1944. Art lover and fanatical Nazi Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons) has plundered Paris museums for their painting masterpieces. His intention is to have them transported by rail to Berlin. Aware that the Allied forces are fast approaching the French capital, a group of railwaymen led by Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster, The Leopard) reluctantly accept the order of the Resistance to prevent the train to reach Germany.
What is most striking when seeing The Train, is its uncompromising efficiency. Coming from the man who managed to create a worthy follow-up to William Friedkin’s masterpiece, The French Connection, in 1975, it doesn’t really come as a surprise. However, taking into consideration how late in the process John Frankenheimer came in and the orientation the movie was originally taking, it is quite an achievement.
It is not really a secret that the development of the movie was supervised by Arthur Penn (Bonny and Clyde), who went as far as directing a first day of shooting, and that his vision was a more intimate movie that would consider the role art played in the French character and why they would risk their lives to save the country's great art from the Nazis. When Burt Lancaster clashed with the director, dissatisfied with his conception of the picture (and eager to secure a success after a series of box-office failures, including Luchino Visconti’s timeless masterpiece The Leopard (1963)) he had him fired and replaced by John Frankenheimer with whom he had worked previously on The Young Savages (1961), The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Seven Days in May (1963). John Frankenheimer did not think that a life was worth more than art masterpieces, especially for the average French working men depicted in the movie (it’s surely not a coincidence that the mention “Directed by John Frankenheimer” appears during the opening credits just after the montage of famous painters’ name put on the crates by the Nazis, as if to put them on the same level than him, a working class man) and preferred re-orientating the movie’s focus on the mechanics of the train operations themselves and the work achieved by the French railwaymen of the Resistance. Although these considerations could somewhat play against the movie, they actually make an interesting case to feed the debate about intimate cinema vs. efficient cinema. We will never know what Arthur Penn’s more intimate version of the movie would have been but we can only agree that under John Frankenheimer’s direction the final product is an amazing piece of action cinema (still with something to say).
At first, The Train can be regarded as a typical example of the war movies of its time and the final product could have been only this: a generic object of its time. Its interest lies now, fifty years after, in the manner this locomotive transforms itself progressively, aggregating several genres and all the forms of adventure stories of its time to become an hybrid object open to some experiences highlighting the precision of a director who would make the war film progress to pure action.
The movie is firstly a tribute to the glory of the French railwaymen during the war, as the opening text reminds us. This part of the Resistance was extremely well organised and with the director, everything is precisely depicted. John Frankenheimer films the work of the steelmaker railwaymen who fix the train and he places the actions in small provincial stations where we can see on the posters of the era the threats to the railwaymen caught sabotaging German trains. Numerous silent shots show exactly what the Resistance has to do to divert the trains. We witness its members unscrewing at length the nuts and bolts during long shots. Similarly, the work and the derisory natire of each gesture are sublimated. This is a bloody fight but at the same time a battle of wits between Colonel Von Waldheim and Labiche and his men. The French railwaymen are both organised and silent at the same time. They almost don’t need to produce plans to achieve their goal while their enemies spend nearly the entire movie trying to achieve one of their machinations. When the Nazis think, it gives the Resistance enough time to react and win the round.
At the centre of this, Labiche represents the true hero who refuses to die and see his comrades die for a cause he doesn’t understand. His actions, as the movie progresses, clearly foreshadow the action heroes of the 80s which will be definitely popularised in movies like Die Hard. And this is exactly what The Train tends toward. More than another war movie typical of the 60s, it progressively transforms into a pure action movie with spectacular scenes and a hero facing a much bigger enemy threat. In that sense, Labiche is perfectly incarnated by Burt Lancaster, a cold and silent fake individualist who will do everything he can to defend causes he doesn’t understand. I take the opportunity here to mention the great work done by the actors in the movie from the stars, from Paul Scofield’s Colonel Von Waldheim who John Frankenheimer didn’t want to be “another moustache twirling Nazi” (as the dialogue with Suzanne Flon clearly allows us to see at the beginning of the movie), Michel Simon’s heroic Papa Boule, and Jeanne Moreau’s resourceful Christine to the supporting actors which all bring an incredible level of realism to the movie.
However, even under John Frankenheimer direction and Burt Lancaster’s star performance, it is impossible to forget the principal element of the movie, i.e. whether it is legitimate or not to sacrifice human lives to safeguard a country’s heritage. Some dialogues sometimes very explicit, some other times brief and efficient, insist on the value of the train’s cargo. The Train most certainly uses codes of the war movie by showing clashes of social classes, both between Nazis and French railwaymen but also inside the Resistance. However, John Frankenheimer doesn’t care for these theatrical dialogues. In the same manner than the railwaymen of the Resistance, only the efficiency of the images seems to count and he prefers forgetting the ethical chatters of the screenplay by summarising the dilemma in a brilliant wordless final montage which demonstrates the art of a director still not recognised for its true value.
Arrow Academy released The Train’s bluray disc on 11th May.
The movie is presented in an efficient 1080p high definition transfer which allows to enjoy its beautiful Black & White photography in great conditions. Some scenes show traces of imperfection due to the age of the movie but nothing detrimental to the vision.
On the sound side, Arrow Academy has only included an uncompressed 1.0 mono PCM audio of the English version of the movie which does justice to the Maurice Jarre’s wonderful score and the various train sound effects. I personally think that it is a shame that the French version of the movie is not included as well as there are several well know French actors in the movie, but we cannot have everything... The disc also offers the option to see the movie with the isolated score by Maurice Jarre and with English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
The bonus section is, as usual in Arrow Academy’s bluray releases, varied although not all extremely informative.
The “piece de resistance” (no pun intended), is the audio commentary by the late John Frankenheimer which was recorded for a previous DVD release of The Train. The director is not very talkative, leaving long moments of silence. Still, when he intervenes he reminds viewers that his movie is the last big action movie shot in Black & White and gives insightful information on his direction (insightful details about the way he directed the 360° one take shot in the Nazis’ headquarter at the beginning of the movie, the depth of focus used throughout the movie which allowed foregrounds and backgrounds to appear clearly on a the same shots), the actors (the fact that Burt Lancaster was a very good actor, very believable as a French Resistant, how he did his own stunts, justifying the director’s decision to shot his actions scenes in one take, and how he doubled for one of the other actors’ death scene), the action scenes (the late addition of the spitfire scene because the studio thought “there was an action scene missing” and how complicated it was to shoot), the realism of the movie (more specifically how he took the time to explain how things were done, for instance when replacing the damaged parts of the train at the beginning, making the interpretation of the actors more believable, and fun anecdotes (the rather famous golf incident/knee injury which led John Frankenheimer to find a solution to continue shooting the movie, how he had to change some of the characters’ fate because the movie was going way over the scheduled time and actors had other engagements and the unplanned speed of the derailed train for the setting of the amazing collision scene.
The director also mentions one aspect of the movie which I find quite relevant in this kind of multi countries coproduction: language (the characters are supposed to speak French and the Nazis in German). This is something that I always watch out for in movies, because I think it can completely ruin their credibility. Although all the characters speak in English during the movie, the director thinks that he managed to get away with it and I must say that he miraculously does.
In addition to the audio commentary, there is also a very informative newly-filmed interview, “Burt Lancaster in the Sixties”, which traces the actor’s career throughout the decade. In it, Lancaster’s biographer Kate Buford discuss the actor’s rise to fame in the late 40s/50s, his encounter with John Frankenheimer and Sydney Pollack on the Young Savages, his seemingly miscast in The Leopard, his obsession for making The Train and his performance in The Swimmer (36 min).
The rest of the supplements focus on the French side of the movie with a fairly useless, but involuntarily very funny, French television news report on the making of the movie containing interviews with the locals of Acquigny where a large section of the movie was shot (8 min), an archival report featuring a short interview with Michel Simon in which the renowned French actor discusses the air raid attack scene and his stunt with Burt Lancaster (3 min), and a very short footage of The Train’s gala screening in Marseilles (1 min).
The theatrical trailer is also included, but I recommend watching it after the movie as it gives away most of the best sequences (and includes horrible artificial zooms).
Finally, the bluray package includes, as usual with Arrow Academy, a fine collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Sheldon Hall and illustrated with original stills and artwork.