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The Train

by Glenn Erickson Dec 29, 2020

 

The Train is back, now at popular prices!  The fan base for John Frankenheimer’s incredibly elaborate Occupation thriller is growing exponentially. The railroad and military hardware on view is 100% real, something that CGI-jaded moviegoers appreciate more than ever. Great acting and a terrific storyline propel a tale of sabotage into the top level of suspense thriller-dom. Starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon, Michel Simon, Wolfgang Preiss. A hundred tons of French steam locomotives and running stock are shot at, burned, blown up and smashed to smithereens. Oh, the movie’s about saving French art treasures, too.


The Train
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1964 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 133 min. / Street Date January 5, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon, Michel Simon, Wolfgang Preiss, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin, Howard Vernon, Bernard Fresson.
Cinematography: Jean Tournier, Walter Wottitz
Film Editors: David Bretherton, Gabriel Rongier
Special Effects: Lee Zavitz
Original Music: Maurice Jarre
Written by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis from a book by Rose Valland
Produced by Jules Bricken
Directed by
John Frankenheimer

In the previous decade the company Twilight Time released hundreds of Blu-ray that Fox and MGM wouldn’t bother to put on hard media… and the major complaint for those collector’s items was that they cost more money. Well, buyers that held out on the great movie The Train can now marvel at its dramatic force and technical ingenuity, in a budget release that’s just as good. For their special edition Kino Lorber has also brought along some of Twilight’s fine extras.

 

After conquering live television and scoring with a pair of cerebral political thrillers, John Frankenheimer turned his talents to large-scale technical challenges. For Grand Prix he found new ways to mount 70mm cameras on Formula 1 racing cars, making viewers grip the armrests on their seats and lean into turns. His 1964 The Train is an intense WW2 story about the French resistance, and among the most physically complex, most realistic action films ever made. Frankenheimer inherited the job after the powerful star Burt Lancaster jettisoned his first director, Arthur Penn. A heady mix of kinetic excitement and moral questions about the relative value of art and human lives, The Train wowed audiences of all kinds. Veterans approved of its realism and avoidance of Hollywood clichés. Women had two magnetic male stars to admire, Lancaster and Englishman Paul Scofield. And fans of action films were duly impressed by the film’s attention to detail. Although trains are shot up, bombed, sabotaged and crashed together in hair-raising action scenes, few optical effects and no models were employed. We’re told that one misjudged train impact wiped out all but one of the unmanned cameras positioned to film it. It’s one of the best shots in the movie — hundreds of tons of iron and metal come smashing at us, and come to rest with a spinning train wheel suspended in the air, just inches from the lens.

I surely hope that Buster Keaton had a chance to see and enjoy The Train… he’s perhaps the only filmmaker before this who had as much freedom to ‘play toy trains’ with the real thing. Frankly, I think Keaton’s The General would make a great double bill with this movie. One episode in The Train even uses Keaton’s ‘double back’ action structure.

 

In August of 1944 Paris is only days from being liberated and the occupying Germans are evacuating as fast as they can. German Staff Officer Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield of Carve Her Name with Pride) has been collecting and ‘safeguarding’ a horde of art treasures at a museum, and now puts together a special train to spirit them all to Germany. Museum directress Mlle Villard (Suzanne Flon of Mr. Arkadin) begs the French railroader Labiche (Burt Lancaster) to use the resistance underground to save France’s national treasures. The sabotage starts small and eventually accelerates until Labiche and his close comrades are putting their lives in direct jeopardy. Train men Jacques, Pesquet and Didont (Jacques Marin, Charles Millot & Albert Rémy) wreck the trains, and others that aid them risk being shot as well, like innkeeper Christine (Jeanne Moreau). Elderly engineer Papa Boule (Michel Simon) sabotages a locomotive by putting a franc coin into an oil line. Not much later the train is again delayed by a derailment that requires German engineer Herren (Wolfgang Priess) to work around the clock. Labiche and his associates finally pull of a grand deception: by changing the signage at half a dozen rail stations, they fool the Germans into thinking the art train is en route to Germany. Labich is actually taking it right back to its station of origin, to keep a date with a massive planned sabotage pile-up with two other locomotives.

The Train is one of the best-looking B&W action films ever — Frankenheimer and his two lighting cameramen keep things realistic at all times, using wide-angle lenses to make us feel the presence of all that railway hardware. There are few ‘easy’ shots and no cheats — even incidental scenes coordinate activity on a grand scale. The average WW2 film can afford a few trucks and vintage personnel vehicles, but The Train uses massive cannons and armored train locomotives as incidental set dressing. We stop looking for production shortcuts after we see Burt Lancaster personally cast and install iron parts for a locomotive, right before our eyes. Giant rail cranes lift entire locomotives from wrecked tracks and set them down as if they were toys. Actor Albert Rémy climbs down between cars on a moving train, and it’s all real. Ever been around real trains? They’re very intimidating and very dangerous.

 

Frankenheimer doesn’t try to dazzle us with fast cutting or superhuman heroic action (although Lancaster’s athleticism comes close). We instead marvel at the precision of his direction. The Train excels with mass movement and chaotic activity — packing paintings, responding to an air raid, rushing to repair a train wreck. Watch your average Spielberg or Lucas ‘epic’ and you’ll see the same ‘assistant director 101’ traffic patterns employed to keep the extras milling about — ‘cross left, cross right, stop, turn, look at your watch, etc.’ The ‘chaos’ here looks genuinely organic. Nobody pauses in meaningless stage waits or tugs at a costume that doesn’t fit. Maybe moviemaking was cheaper in 1964 but this production skimps on nothing. Frankenheimer had the freedom to expand the film into an action spectacle. He was able to shut down the first unit for weeks and then re-commence filming when the weather improved. Nobody has that kid of luxury now.

Shooting films with trains can’t be rushed: getting a locomotive back to start position doesn’t happen instantaneously. But Frankenheimer was also known for working fast. His shots never look overly storyboarded, in the way that makes modern action pictures look like animated cartoons. An involved mastershot in The Train may initiate with a detail (a small fire), tilt up to show an activity in the rail yard, and then truck and crane to follow some characters. The actors create their own medium and close shots by walking closer and farther away from the camera. The precision really makes a difference. In the film’s very first shot, a group of cars appears in the distance on the exact frame when a camera move ends on some Germans at a machine-gun post. With just walkie-talkies and (presumably) signal flags, Frankenheimer’s crew coordinates many daring set-ups. In one shot, a crane-mounted camera (with its operators) glides smoothly across the path of an oncoming locomotive. Frankenheimer and his cameraman risked being smashed to bits.

 

Orson Welles famously compared a movie studio to a set of toy trains, and John Frankenheimer has the biggest movie train set ever. We’re informed that the French rail industry was standardizing the gauge of its system, and allowed the producer to purchase and wreck all the old-gauge trains he wanted. He also partially demolished a rail yard that was to be replaced with more modern facilities. Real dynamite was used. In the air raid scene real buildings are blasted to bits. Tons of earth are tossed into the air by real explosions, not special effects fakes. The men seen running away as trains are about to collide aren’t faking it either — a person could get killed out there.

The movie’s terrific forward momentum eventually boils down to a figurative duel between Von Waldheim’s art thief and Labiche’s saboteur. Burt Lancaster proves that he is still a physical dynamo at age fifty. Unbroken action shots show Burt performing impressive feats without a stunt double, or resorting to camera tricks. Everything he does is believable, logical and often truly graceful. When Lancaster hurt his foot, the script was changed to have Labiche be shot, to justify his limp.

By 1964 World War II movies had divided into two kinds of pictures. The exploitative ‘escapist’ action movies picture combat as fun. Heroes make jokes as enemy soldiers fall like tenpins. But there were also pretentious adult-themed war movies that seemed influenced by European art pictures, like The Young Lions and The Victors. They stress existential values as friend and foe alike ponder the futility and waste of war. Of course, the soldiers in these pictures also took time out to bed sexy movie stars.

 

Labiche hasn’t got time for Jeanne Moreau to do much more than make eyes at him. As with the other European actors, all the dialogue is in English. For the most part the voice dubbing works out well; we only really notice when the utterly French Michel Simon is robbed of his language. Simon’s old face looks like a melting pumpkin, yet he’d keep making movies until 1975. We wonder if MGM once had full audio masters for The Train in French and German … wouldn’t it be nice to create a multi-lingual version with subtitles?

It can’t have been difficult to get the French to cooperate with a movie extolling the valor of the resistance. The rail workers fared better than some resistance groups because they were united by profession, not divided by internal politics. They routinely smuggled messages and people in and out of the occupied zones. When caught they were shot, but that only made things more difficult for the Germans, who desperately needed to keep the trains running. The other film masterpiece on this same exact subject, minus the art theft angle, is René Clément’s remarkable docu-drama La Bataille Du Rail (Battle of the Rails), filmed just after the occupation was lifted. It was filmed in the real places with actual resistance fighters. The Nazis did steal a lot of French art in the four years of Occupation. According to Julie Kirgo’s liner notes, in the last few weeks at least one major shipment was prevented from being transported to Germany, but mostly by intentional bureaucratic red tape, not outright sabotage.

The explosive graphic collage on the film’s poster tells us exactly how The Train was sold to the public. The big twist is of course that von Waldheim and Labiche fight for a national idea represented by a transcendant national treasure. Frankenheimer and his screenwriters may overstate their message when twenty or thirty dead Frenchmen are visually weighed against dozens of crates market ‘Corot,’ ‘Matisse’ et al. Has something been accomplished or is the slaughter just more madness?  The word ‘madness’ is the final shouted response to the apocalyptic bloodbath at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Is France’s great art so important that its preservation is worth all of this slaughter? The Train mercifully doesn’t give us pages of lame debate between Paul Scofield and Wolfgang Preiss. An impressive accomplishment from beginning to end, The Train is an unacknowledged masterpiece.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Train replicates the smooth, rich grayscale of a picture blessed with that soft French daylight that looks so good in B&W. The cinematography reproduces the sweaty, oil-dripping work on the rails. The deep focus helps when the spinning wheel of a locomotive leaps the rails and lands right in our faces.

Maurice Jarre’s stirring music is like a dry run for his great score for Is Paris Burning?  Kino has been able to retain the Isolated Score Track produced for the older Twilight Time disc. It plays like a concert.

John Frankenheimer’s commentary track was recorded in the middle 1990s for an MGM laserdisc. His insights about the hows and whys of every detail of the film are fascinating, but some of his statements have been removed for legal reasons. I was working at MGM at the time and remember a minor/major incident about the release. If you listen to the main titles, you’ll hear a big audio hole, a silence over many of the credits. When the writing credit card came up, Frankenheimer originally said something to the effect of, “These guys didn’t write a word of this movie.” He also may have named the blacklisted Walter Bernstein and Nedrick Young as the real writers. The Writer’s Guild of America was not pleased by this, MGM being a signatory company, and the entire statement was dropped from the commentary. Thus began the era wherein studios denied video extra interviews and commentaries anything like free speech.

 

Kino’s go-to war film commentators Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin offer a new track, expressing their own enthusiasm for the movie. Mitchell again makes his pitch for the theory that WW2 movies are best filmed in B&W because most real images we remember from the war are in B&W. By now, I think most people expect WW 2 movies to look like Saving Private Ryan. He calls The Train the last big movie about the war filmed in B&W, but there’s of course Is Paris Burning? made two years later.

Julie Kirgo’s insert liner note essay calls Frankenheimer’s movie the most complex of all the 1960s action epics. She separates fact from fiction in the incidents that inspired the film, including naming the real art curator who safeguarded the paintings during the war. We’re told that the German press complained about the film’s conclusion, in which some French hostages are shot: the German giving the command is a normal Wehrmacht officer, not a member of the S.S.. The political trend in the Cold War was to limit all German war crimes to as small a group of Nazi villains as possible.

Want an extra treat?  Take a look at the six minutes of On the set of John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964). John Frankenheimer has no trouble saying that he’s throwing out all of the film previously shot, and taking the show in his own direction. And warm up your French for Jeanne Moreau’s interview.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Train
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by John Frankenheimer; audio commentary by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin; Isolated Score by Maurice Jarre; Trailers from Hell with Brian Trenchard-Smith; trailer, insert essay by Julie Kirgo.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed:
December 26, 2020
(6415trai)
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Here’s Brian Trenchard Smith on The Train:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.