Monday 18 November 2019

Movie Review: The Train (1964)

A gripping World War Two action film, The Train is an intense story of heroism presented with considerable panache. An uncompromising battle over the fate of a train unfolds as a metaphor for unyielding resistance in the chaotic dying days of the German occupation of France.

It's August 1944, and the Allies are close to liberating Paris. German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is intent on transporting to Germany hundreds of celebrated paintings by famous artists looted by the Nazis from throughout France. He overcomes bureaucratic delays and secures a train, loading it with his cargo of stolen art.

Arts curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) understands the value of keeping the masterworks in France, and appeals to the underground cell led by rail yard manager Labiche (Burt Lancaster) to stall the train's progress until the Allies arrive. But Labiche's group strength has been decimated, and he expresses no interest in culture. His cell is anyway busy delaying a German armaments train to expose it to a British bombing raid.

When gruff engineer Papa Boule (Michel Simon) risks his life to save the arts train, Labiche and his collaborators Didont (Albert Rémy) and Pesquet (Charles Millot) decide to risk everything for one last mission. They improvise an elaborate and risky ruse to try and keep the train in France, a plan that will involve station manager Jacques (Jacques Marin) and innkeeper Christine (Jeanne Moreau).

Combining ferocious action with quiet moments of tension, The Train is a superlative World War Two adventure. Loosely inspired by factual events recounted in the 1961 book Le Front De L'art by Rose Valland, the film extracts surprising drama and poignancy from a simple story about a small group of resistance fighters doing all they can to derail a grand theft. The focus is a train, but the message is about national pride and standing up with limited and ever dwindling resources to a barbaric regime.

In a classic distillation of the war to two individuals on opposite sides of the conflict, the script by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, and Walter Bernstein pits Colonel von Waldheim against Labiche. The irony is that it is von Waldheim who is an admirer of the arts while Labiche could care less. The struggle between them transcends the train cargo and evolves into a battle of wills to record one last blow before the Germans depart France.

The film is a visual study in dynamic fluidity. Director John Frankenheimer was a late replacement for Arthur Penn, and elevates The Train to a stylish art piece. Making excellent use of black and white cinematography, Frankenheimer goes looking for eye catching framing, and packs the film with several memorable long uninterrupted tracking shots featuring exquisitely choreographed activity. The settings vary from offices filled with German army clerks frantically burning documents as defeat looms to bustling rail yards where French workers, German soldiers and their nervous officers intermingle with cacophonous train traffic supporting the war effort.

The heart of the film is action, and The Train is filled with breathless set-pieces, from a bombing raid on a train yard to several clandestine stealth missions, and a quite spectacular derailment / crash combo designed to wedge and delay a treasure. All the action scenes are real, and star Burt Lancaster does many of his own stunts in a performance full of understated bravado.

The human cost of exceptional courage is high, and The Train is unblinking in confronting the sacrifice required to stop evil. After years of brutal conflict, a resigned determination on both sides to wage battle to the bitter end assures horrific casualties. And for the French resistance fighters, the prize is much more than a train full of paintings.

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