Von Ryan's Express Review
For one of the most famous men of the 20th century, it comes as something of a surprise that Frank Sinatra’s film career has not been more widely remembered. Even his most famous role, in From Here to Eternity has the dubious honour of being supplanted by the famous image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing in the sea, and his other film roles, such as Ocean’s Eleven, are commonly deried as being little more than Rat Pack fluff. However, he had largely unfulfilled ambitions to be a ‘straight’ dramatic actor, as can be seen by his appearances in such diverse films as The Pride and the Passion, Eternity, and, perhaps most notably, Von Ryan’s Express, which works both as a thoroughly decent WW2 action-adventure, and also as a rather more thoughtful and intelligent look at the moral ambiguity that war inevitably reduces would-be heroes to.
The plot is more than a little reminiscent of such classic war films as Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape, even if it does run around an hour shorter than those two. Ryan (Sinatra) is an American pilot shot down over Italy, captured, and put in an Italian prisoner of war camp, where he runs up against the stiff-upper-lip rigour of Major Fincham (Howard), the ineffectual chaplain and assorted British chaps. After the Italians surrender to the Germans, Ryan and Fincham find the camp abandoned by their guards, and set off to freedom. Unfortunately, escaping from an Italy overrun by Nazis proves to be rather easier said than done, especially as they have to cope with Italian traitors on board the train that they eventually hijack, hotly pursued by Germans as they travel.
Although it bears saying that this isn’t as fun, witty or exciting as The Great Escape, which is still the benchmark for all WW2 escape films, this is actually a surprisingly sophisticated piece of entertainment. Although there are some deeply misjudged ‘comedy’ moments here and there, such as an early scene of farcical mass stripping at the camp and the subsequent burning of clothes and a later, equally absurd scene of the foppish padre dressing up as a Nazi (which leads to the treasurable comment ‘The Bosche have style, dammit!’), the film is normally admirable in its level-headed and intelligent attitude to so-called ‘heroism’ and derring-do; Ryan earns the disdainful nickname ‘Von Ryan’ for what is seen as his pandering to the Germans, and is shown, over and over again, to make fairly disastrous errors in his plans; in the film’s finest scene, he guns down an Italian woman who was about to betray him, dressed as a Nazi, and then realises that he has been observed by a young Italian who is gazing down at him with contempt. The boundaries between Ryan’s idealism and Fincham’s cynical beliefs are thus shown as being eroded away, and the downbeat ending comes as less of a surprise than it might have done from a lesser film.
However, this is fundamentally a highly entertaining yarn, and it would be self-defeating to attempt to derive great moral significance from it. Although Mark Robson, the director, did little else of note apart from the gloriously trashy Peyton Place, he directs the action scenes with an assured sense of pace, even if they occasionally verge on the over-complicated; the finale, when the train is under attack by Messchersmitts and pursued by Nazis simultaneously is particularly effectively done. He also manages to elicit rather good performances from Sinatra, who manages to make Ryan a noble but not entirely sympathetic central character, and Howard, who may be riffing on the persona of the autocratic authority figure that he first developed in Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty, but here brings a rather more sympathetic touch to a man who may appear to be acting ruthlessly, but genuinely understands the rules of war rather better than Ryan, who may be the superior officer in rank, but, as he points out, is not a professional soldier.
Ultimately, then, this is not a major genre work, and only likely to be a must-purchase for Sinatra completists or war film fanatics. All the same, it is consistently entertaining, frequently intelligent and even occasionally surprising stuff, with two strong lead performances, some fine action scenes and, if nothing else, it deserves some points for being one of the very few Hollywood war films to concentrate on the Italian fascists as much as their German assistants. If it can be picked up cheaply enough, it’s well worth a watch.
Fox have done a moderately good job here, although nothing truly exceptional. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is presented fairly nicely, with some strong use of colour and a generally pleasant ‘look’ to the Cinemascope picture, but there is also some irritating print damage from time to time, as well as some occasional softness in the transfer. Although not up to the absolute best standards of 1960s DVD presentation (that, trivia fans, would be Criterion’s Spartacus), this is still a pretty worthy effort.
The soundtrack is presented cleanly, if somewhat thinly, in two-channel mono. Jerry Goldsmith’s score comes across well- and, for those Goldsmith fans out there, sounds remarkably like his later score to Air Force One- and the dialogue is presented perfectly decently. However, there’s a lack of bass to the various explosions and shoot-outs that makes this an occasionally frustrating experience; although 5.1 remixes are normally fairly irrelevant, a remix here might have done some good.
Only a trailer is provided, which makes the film look rather ghastly, as well as hinting at an entirely absent romantic subplot. One of the few things that Hollywood does unequivocally better these days than it used to is marketing its films (unless, that is, you’re Robert Zemeckis, in which case you try and give away the plots to your films in the trailers.)
A good-to-very good action-adventure film, with enough depth to the script to suggest that a little thought was put into its construction and some finely judged performances, is released on a disc that satisfies technically, but rather fails to excite, and is lacking in supplements. Then again, it’s hard to think which really worthwhile extras could have been put on the disc; all the lead actors are dead, as is the director, and it’s not the sort of piece that would really benefit from critical commentaries. Worth watching, certainly, but not nearly as essential as The Great Escape…