Director: John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn (uncredited)
Screenplay: Franklin Coen, Frank Davis
Based on a book by: Rose Valland
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau
Running Time: 140 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
A fairly underrated director, John Frankenheimer has been behind a number of classic movies, such as The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May as well as some thrillers and action movies that are underrated themselves, such as Ronin and 52 Pick-Up. He was one of the few directors to get on with the notoriously difficult Burt Lancaster and the two of them made five largely well received films together. The Train was one of these, although Arthur Penn was the original director before Lancaster (supposedly) fired him.
Frankenheimer promptly changed the film to better suit his sensibilities (or perhaps to better give Lancaster a much needed hit). Whereas Penn’s film was set to be a more thought provoking look at the willingness of the French to risk their lives for art, Frankenheimer dampened the focus on art to instead produce a rip-roaring action film which occasionally stopped for breath to examine the price of war and the sacrifices made. Whether or not this was for the best we will never know, but we’re sure as hell left with a bloody good film.
The Train is based on a true story set in occupied France in 1944, where a German Colonel (Paul Schofield) loads a train full of priceless art from a Parisian museum to send over to Germany. He and everyone else at the time knows that the end of the war is coming and France will soon be handed back to the French, so this is his last chance for the Germans to keep the valuable items for themselves. The museum curator can’t let this happen though so calls on the Resistance to help. A handful of members work at the station housing the train, including station master Labiche (Lancaster), so they’re asked to take this task on. Initially Labiche turns down the job, but circumstances gradually sway him to put his and his fellow soldiers’ lives on the line to keep what belongs to the French in France.
I’ve been wanting to watch The Train for a long time, since eying up the VHS in shops back when I was a youngster, but I never got myself a copy for whatever reason. Luckily Arrow have recently released a shiny new dual format version and I can safely the say the wait was worth it as this film ticked all the boxes for me. Regular readers will know I’m a fan of action movies as well as classic cinema and this brings the thrills and fine craftsmanship in equal measure to create the perfect combination.
Shooting in sharp, wide depth of field black and white, Frankenheimer mounts a wonderfully rich and realistic spectacle. It’s one of the sweatiest, grubbiest films I’ve seen, with the largely male cast flexing their muscles alongside huge industrial machinery to create manly entertainment of the highest order.
The set pieces are almost all done for real. Actual full sized trains crash and are blown up. In one key scene when a whole train yard is destroyed, the crew were given permission to annihilate a real yard full of old wagons that needed to be demolished. This epic destruction, on top of the monochrome look and the fact that former acrobat Lancaster did all his own stunts, give the film’s set pieces a believable and timeless quality rarely seen in today’s overly graded CGI films. It truly is a magnificent spectacle and the film and plot is finely paced too, crafting a wonderfully thrilling adventure that enthrals despite the lengthy running time.
Lancaster is a strong presence as always and the villain Schofield is particularly memorable too. His character is given more depth than most Nazi bad guys as he’s one of the few people that genuinely cares about the art so you do feel for him, even if you don’t want him to win in the end.
In terms of depth elsewhere, the film is perhaps a little heavy handed in regularly referring to the human price of the Resistance’s endeavour, but a number of scenes handle the topic effectively without too much dialogue and the surprisingly bleak ending is pulled off perfectly.
I could also maybe nitpick about the handling of language (everyone speaks English, but some with the appropriate accents and some without), but when the film is this exciting, this well produced and this well performed, who’s complaining?
The Train is out on 11th May in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Arrow Academy. I watched the Blu-Ray version which looked and sounded fantastic.
The special features look impressive on paper, but although they’re fairly substantial, they’re largely a little disappointing. Three featurettes are vintage French news reports – an interview with Michel Simon is brief and not particularly illuminating, footage of The Train’s gala screening in Marseilles is throwaway, but a TV report on the making of the film is actually quite a fun, quirky little film, where we see and hear the reactions of those living in the town where much of the film was shot and where the real events took place.
You get a director’s commentary, which is always a great inclusion, but Frankenheimer is slow speaking and the track is pretty sparse. He warms up as it goes on, but it’s still not as good as I’d hoped.
There’s an optional isolated score track, which is an interesting addition, but not the sort of thing I’d generally actually listen to. An interview with Lancaster’s biographer Kate Buford is strong though and the standout featurette on the set. She bombards the viewer with information, which made it difficult to follow at first as I was trying to do two things at once, but it’s full of fascinating information about this unusual period in the megastar’s career.
Finally you get a trailer and one of Arrow’s well compiled booklets. Sheldon Hall’s essay on the film in this booklet does a good job of making up for the lack of a strong ‘making of’ documentary.