Friday, July 22, 2011

The Train

That's kind of odd...I have been keeping this movie blog for over a year now, reviewing every film I have watched, and The Train is the first war movie in all that time.  I guess I'll have to update my genre page.  This omission was not intentional, of course, but I think I understand why it happened.  War movies are kind of odd; they are about the characters, sure, but more likely than not, most of those characters will die.  War movies tend to be about big picture ideas, like the futility of war or the brotherhood of man, and I'm more of a story guy.  Maybe I need to give this genre another look in the near future, yes?  No?  Let's see how The Train goes first, before I start making commitments.

The time: World War II.  The place: Paris, France --- which is good, because WWII stories from Paris, Texas are a little tame.  German Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has spent the last few years appreciating the vast collection of looted art that the Nazis had stolen from French museums and homes.  And by "appreciating," you should picture this: 
Knowing how totally awesome America and the Allied forces are, Von Waldheim knows that the Germans' days in France are numbered; with each day, the battle front gets closer and closer to France.  Desperate to save (and own) this priceless collection, Von Waldheim arranges to have all the art transported to Berlin.  The curator that had been allowed to maintain the collection until then (Suzanne Flon) contacts the French Resistance, looking for help; with the Allies so close to liberating Paris, the train with the art will only need to be delayed a few days, at most.  However, the Resistance is hesitant to risk their lives for art.  But it's more than just pictures, you see; this art --- every piece is the work of an acknowledged master --- represents French ideals, the soul of the French people, even.  A cranky and stubborn train driver, Papa Boule (Michael Simon), takes matters into his own hands and pulls an amateur trick to sabotage the train in the name of France's soul.  He is executed for his efforts.  That is enough to raise the ire of the French Resistance, led by Labiche (Burt Lancaster).  So, what began as a fight to save an abstract idea becomes much more personal.
If you say "Labiche" in a Chicago accent, it sounds like you're saying "Da Bears" in French.

Burt Lancaster was a pretty big deal in the golden age of Hollywood, but this is the first movie of his I have seen.  He's a commanding leading man, to be sure.  Strong, confident, and capable of aggression.  What he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, is French.  Aside from his glaring American accent in a film full of European voices, I really liked his performance.  Paul Scofield was pretty awesome, too.  He reminded me of Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark; his Nazi allegiance seemed to be a matter of convenience to get his hands on the greatest art collection the world has ever known.  But man, was he brutal --- I loved how dastardly clever he was, especially toward the end of the film.  You never see movies where a Nazi has the best monologue in the picture --- evil doesn't get to offer a counterpoint --- but Scofield stole the final scenes with a well-written and delivered speech.
"So once again, Dr. Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine."
The rest of the cast was full of character parts.  Jeanne Moreau plays a reluctant helper to Labiche, and Michael Simon plays a French caricature, with others playing more bit roles.

John Frankenheimer directed The Train, although he wasn't involved in pre-production.  The original director, Arthur Penn, was going to focus on why Burt Lancaster's character would risk his life for art, and Burt didn't like that.  He wanted a movie that would focus on the action-y parts of the story, like the various ways they would delay the train, so he had Penn fired and the script re-written.  However, that led to the production taking a lot longer than originally anticipated, so many actors had to leave to fulfill other acting commitments.  The script was frequently rewritten on the fly to accommodate these changes.  Many of the character deaths were added to the story for this reason.  Even an off-set knee injury to Lancaster was incorporated into the script.  With a production that hectic, it is amazing how well The Train turned out.

Frankenheimer's direction, while a last-minute choice, was very good.  He made use of a lot of long, unedited tracking shots, which are difficult to pull off because the action of dozens of characters must all be spot-on to look good.  I liked that the question of the art's esthetic value was brought up, but I really liked that the audience is never given an explicit explanation for Labiche's motives.  Then again, Frankenheimer was brought on to shoot some action scenes, and the action is pretty good for a movie made in 1964, especially one that is about stolen art.  The action scenes are very physical, even if they are kind of rudimentary by current standards; Lancaster did most (if not all) of his own stunts, and it really adds to the wear and tear on his character as the film progresses.  Fact: they actually blew up real train lines in France while shooting this movie --- that's just awesome.  This was one of the last action movies made in black-and-white, too, which is an interesting discussion point for a movie that purports the importance of paintings.  This is a better-than-average war movie for most of the film, but the final scenes between Labiche and Von Waldheim are what raise the picture into something unique and good.
THE image to take from this film.

So, The Train balances some artistic ideas with some gritty action.  That's reasonably cool, right?  Yeah, I guess so.  There's just something missing in this movie for me to truly love it.  I think it would have worked better with either the Germans or the French (or both) speaking their actual language; there were a few scenes where the language being spoken was a key plot point --- "but I don't know how to speak German!" --- but since everyone spoke English, the tension was undercut.  I would have liked to see Labiche question his quest at least once, after he got on the "save the art, screw the Nazis" path.  I liked that his motives were murky, but it was odd that he was so sure of himself.  I definitely enjoyed The Train, but the focus on action went a little too far; does this mean that I would have preferred Penn's directorial vision?  Not necessarily.  I think this movie is one Burt Lancaster monologue away from greatness, but what we have is still pretty good.


  1. If you are going to delve into war flicks, I would like to see your take on The Thin Red Line and/or Paths of Glory.

  2. Both are on my (never-ending) list. The Thin Red Line will probably happen sooner than later. Any other quality choices I might have overlooked in the past?

  3. Foreign flicks that come to mind are Persona and Branded to Kill. Both are tits.