In the 1960’s, the war movie was king. More appropriately, the huge, epic, big-budget blockbuster with all-star casts. One of the best though? A film that’s equal parts art house and action-adventure with an immaculate style, impressive action sequences and two great lead performances. One of the best war films ever made, it’s 1964’s The Train.
It’s August 1944 and Allied forces are quickly advancing across France. With the liberation of Paris imminent, a German colonel, Von Waldheim (Paul Schofield), makes a drastic call, commandeering hundreds and thousands of historic paintings from countless famous artists/painters. He intends to transport the priceless art into Germany via a guarded train, potentially saving it from its destruction. The French Resistance is aware of Von Waldheim’s plan and intends to save the priceless art. The resistance leader, a railway supervisor named Labiche (Burt Lancaster), questions the value of saving the art, especially with so many lives on the line. He goes along with it though as the resistance all along the train line readies itself to help the cause. Should they though? Are lives worth art?
Despite growing up on a wave of western and war movies, I didn’t see this movie until I was probably 20 or so. Well, I loved it and I still do. It’s an all-timer. What I’ve found so impressive about this World War II film from director John Frankenheimer is that it balances in impeccable fashion an almost art-house style with an action-heavy story featuring some ridiculously cool stunt sequences that were far ahead of their time. As well, it deftly handles its anti-war message without being overbearing, questioning the value of art and culture compared to a person’s life, or sadly, many people’s lives. A classic that while is universally respected and well-reviewed, still doesn’t get its due. One of the best war movies ever.
The question that drives this WWII story is as simple as that…is it worth it to die for a universally renowned painting? Is it worth for many people, many of them innocent? Lancaster’s Labiche is the conscience of that movie in that sense. He’s seen his resistance group dwindle from 18 to just 3 (including himself) over the years. The seemingly never-ending death has worn him down. He sees no value in risking his life — or those around him — to save a painting(s), no matter how famous. Labiche simply wants to survive, to see his friends survive. It’s only when he’s fully pushed into the situation that he commits to helping the cause, to fully stopping the art-loaded train from reaching Germany.
Even though some of his most respected performances are a tad overdone, Burt Lancaster will always be a personal favorite. I like my Lancaster a little more subdued, like here, his Labiche one of his finest performances. It’s fascinating watching the transformation he makes from unwilling participant to ringleader putting his life on the line. It is a quieter performance, a weary man at wits’ end. Beyond the acting though, this is an incredible physical performance. Lancaster runs across the screen, climbing, leaping, sprinting and dominates the screen, handling most of his own stunts. In one scene, he slides down a ladder, lands, sprints, stops on a dime, reverses course and jumps onto a moving train. Oh, it’s all in one unedited, uncut shot. It’s incredible.
Schofield’s Von Waldheim is the counter, an educated, highly intelligent officer who becomes more and more obsessed with accomplishing his mission. Obsessed is the key word, Labiche his constant thorn in his side. He matches Lancaster scene for scene, constantly countering with every roadblock thrown in his way. Also look for Jeanne Moreau as Christine, a hotel owner wavering over whether to help Labiche, Suzanne Flon as the museum curator trying to get help from the resistance, Michel Simon as Papa Boule, a veteran train conductor who sees what’s on the line on the art train, Wolfgang Preiss as Von Waldheim’s very capable second-in-command, Albert Remy and Charles Millot as Labiche’s fellow resistance fighters, Jacques Marin as a station master along the rail line, and Donald O’Brien as a persistent German sergeant.
Filmed on-location in France, ‘Train’ is a joy to watch. Frankenheimer chose to film in black and white, giving his WWII story a stark look, a visual that gets right to the point. He was clearly impacted by the French New Wave movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, filming ‘Train’ in an incredibly unique visual style. Scenes featuring quick cuts and off-center camera angles are balanced with long, uninterrupted shots from far-off angles. Case in point? A long shot as a train makes its way through a train yard being bombed by Allied bombers. A truly incredible sequence. That’s the whole movie, one impressive scene after another, building to an incredible ending, equal parts moving and uncomfortable. Add a memorable, underplayed score from composer Maurice Jarre, and you’ve got some great pieces for a puzzle.
War message aside (if you choose to ignore it…but DON’T), ‘Train’ is at its heart a cat-and-mouse action movie. Schofield’s Von Waldheim makes a move and Lancaster’s Labiche counters. Lather, rinse and repeat. Who will win in the end? I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but how Labiche and the resistance actually slow down the German effort is executed in a memorable sequence that features some great twists, all of it pointing to how huge the resistance effort is to stop the train. The last 30 minutes especially deliver, Labiche single-handedly trying to stop the train. In an extended sequence on a French hillside with a looping rail line below them, Labiche does anything he can to get the job done. Nerve-wracking is an understatement as these scenes develop. Just go for the ride and try not to get too nervous.
A classic movie, one of the best war films ever made, starting with Lancaster at the top and Frankeheimer delivering an amazing final product. The Train was ahead of its time upon its release and it more than holds up now over 50 years later.
The Train (1964): ****/****