The film “The Train” takes place in Paris, France, in August 1944. The curator of the Jeu de Paume museum is Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon). She has been allowed, during the four years of Nazi occupation, to stay on in her position and the art in her care has been protected. Colonel Franz Von Waldheim, played by three time BAFTA winner Paul Scofield (A Man For All Seasons), has seen to the protection personally. The relative safety that Mademoiselle Villard enjoys ends a few minutes into the film, as a number of soldiers under Von Waldheim’s command enter the museum. They start putting works by artists such as Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh into crates. The art is to be shipped by train to Germany, before the allies fight their way into Paris and end the Nazi occupation. (As an aside: The liberation of Paris took place on August 25, 1944).
Mademoiselle Villard alerts members of the French resistance. She implores them that the train cannot be allowed to reach its destination. If the train is allowed to leave and reach Germany, it is her personal feeling, that it would be an irrecoverable detriment to France. The railroad workers, who would be vital to successfully stopping the train from leaving, are not keen on the idea. The railroad workers resistance leader, Paul Labiche portrayed by Oscar winner Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) doesn’t feel that the value of the art is worth the cost of the potential loss of life; especially since he already has undertaken a mission to delay another train, so the allies can destroy it in an air raid. Labiche is further hesitant to implement a plan to stop the train, because Mademoiselle Villard doesn’t merely want the train to be kept from reaching Germany, but she wants the art work to be protected from destruction. Labiche and his men are used to blowing up and derailing trains, not protecting non-human cargo.
What changes Labiche’s mindset, is the murder of an older train conductor, Papa Boule (Michael Simon). After Boule is caught sabotaging the train, Labiche begs to have the man’s life spared, but his pleas go unheard. The reason Boule risks his life, is that he feels the same way that Mademoiselle Villard does, that the art should not be allowed to be taken to Germany.
From the moment of Papa Boule’s murder, Labiche is determined to do all within his power to make sure the train with the art aboard does not leave France. Opposing Labiche is the equally determined and seemingly obsessed Von Waldheim. He is insistent that nothing and no one must interfere with the train leaving for its destination. While Von Waldheim states that his interest is purely for the financial benefit of the Third Reich, his unyielding determination, however, speaks to his own personal motive of greed. This becomes clear to the viewer, when there is an engine derailment and Von Waldheim uses men that should be fighting the advancing allies, as well as needed equipment to get the train running again. Von Waldheim’s orders are much to the consternation of Major Herren (Wolfgang Preiss) who feels that the task is a waste of time and man-power that could be better utilized.
The action scenes in the film, measured against the time period it was produced, hold up very well. The filmmakers refrained from using model trains for the collisions, opting instead, to use real train crashes. The air raid on the rail yard is full of realistic mayhem. The film hints at romance between Labiche and Christine; she is a resistance sympathizer, who runs a hotel and is played by BAFTA winner Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim). Firstly, however, Labiche needs to stop France’s enemy, before he can think of what life could be like after the war. (As an aside: During filming, Burt Lancaster performed all of his own stunts. He wound up getting injured, on a day off from filming, while he was playing golf, which caused him to limp. The filmmakers had Lancaster’s character get shot in the leg during the movie, so his limping on camera would make sense).
“The Train” was directed by four time Emmy winner John Frankenheimer (George Wallace). The film was based, in part, on the book “Le Front De L’Art: Defense des Collections” by Rose Valland. In addition to her writing, Valland was a French art historian, a member of the French resistance against the Nazis during World War II and had been a Captain in the French Military. The screenplay for the film was written by two time Oscar nominee Frank Davis, based on Villand’s book and his, and Oscar nominee Franklin Coen’s (The Train) story. Uncredited additional writing work was done by Oscar nominee Walter Bernstein (The Front); Howard Dimsdale (The Six Million Dollar Man); Albert Husson (We’re No Angels) and Oscar winner Nedrick Young (The Defiant Ones). The film premiered on September 24, 1964. Comprised of the genres of thriller and war, the runtime of the film is 133 minutes. (As an aside: Originally three time Oscar nominee Arthur Penn (Alice’s Restaurant) was going to direct, but Burt Lancaster, wasn’t pleased with the direction Penn wanted to take the film. Lancaster felt that Penn’s film didn’t contain enough action, so Lancaster had Penn replaced with Frankenheimer).
From the well executed action sequences; the excellent performances from the entire cast; and the realism of what was being showcased on screen, “The Train” held my interest, and hopefully, if you decide to give this cinematic gem a watch, it will hold yours as well.