The Train: Burt Lancaster and John Frankenheimer created the most dynamic, sophisticated and thought-provoking World War II Action picture

The Train(1964), directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield in lead roles, is a brilliant WWII action thriller that details the attempts of the French underground resistance to stop the Germans from stealing valuable pieces of French paintings in the days leading up to the liberation of Paris.

I love films involving a train as a locus for the action. Train films have a charisma all their own; there is something really thrilling and cinematic about seeing a train in motion on the big screen. Right from “The Great Train Robbery” and Buster Keaton’s “The General” to David Lean’s “Bridge on the river Kwai” and “Doctor Zhivago”, the filmmakers had realized and exploited the potential of featuring trains in action on the silver screen. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 World war II set drama, “The Train” is a crown jewel in this particular brand of cinema. As the title suggests, the entire action of the film is centered around a train, but the train itself is secondary to the main subject matter of the film, which is really about assessing the importance of art in a civilized society, and how valuable is art in front of human lives. Thus, The Train acquires a dimension far beyond the boundaries of an extremely well put together war\Action thriller. Even if the film didn’t have this extra dimension, it would still have been one of the most cinematically dynamic films ever made, thanks to the bravura visual sense of director Frankenheimer and the age-defying agility and athleticism of star, Burt Lancaster. As an additional political subtext, for which Frankenheimer was vey famous for, we have the depiction of a class conflict within the film’s theme, where the working class railway laborers doubling as French rebels takes it upon themselves to foil the nefarious plans of a Nazi bourgeoisie, Colonel Franz von Waldheim (a brilliant performance by Paul Scofield), who’s a great connoisseur of art and madly addicted to these paintings, from  moving the stolen art masterpieces by train to Germany. The casting of the macho, rough and earthy American star Lancaster as Paul Labiche, the French Resistance-leader; and the smooth, sophisticated Shakespearean British actor Paul Scofield as the Nazi colonel is keeping in with these ambitions. Also, Lancaster represents the action and adventurous aspects of the film, while Schofield provides its sophisticated, intellectual core.

Frankenheimer began his directing career at the age of 24 in live television at CBS. Throughout the 1950s, he directed some of the greatest actors, who were twice or thrice his age, in over 140 episodes of shows like Playhouse 90Climax!, and Danger, and created a mark for himself as one of the most path breaking directors of the medium. So it was inevitable that he would soon move to the bigger medium of Cinema. Frankenheimer debuted as a film director with The Young Stranger(1957) and became a full time film director with The Young Savages(1961)- the first of the 5 films he would make with Lancaster. Frankenheimer’s departure from Television is considered the end of the golden age of Television. His bravura and dynamic visual style was developed during his live T.V. days, when they had to move the sets and switch camera angles even when the actors were performing. As a filmmaker, Frankenheimer makes two kinds of films: First, the kinetic spectacle like Grand Prix, Black Sunday or Ronin, and the second is the intimate kind of picture like Birdman of Alcatraz or Seven Days in May. The Train is a combination of these two styles: on one level, it’s an intimate, thoughtful drama that meditates on an important question like “What price art?”; on another, it’s a pulse-pounding, thrill-a-minute, action adventure spectacle, where they used real trains and real dynamite to trigger crashes and explosions. It’s hard to believe today, but Frankenheimer was not the first choice to helm the film. The film, based on the factual 1961 book, Le front de l’art, by Rose Valland, the art historian at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, was originally intended to be an intimate character piece directed by Arthur Penn. The original incident on which the film is based deals with the behind the scenes maneuvers of French nationals in successfully tying down the departure of the train carrying the paintings in bureaucratic red tape. Thus, allowing the paintings to remain in Paris till the arrival of the Allied forces. Penn, who had directed “The Miracle Worker” and would go on to direct “Bonnie and Clyde”, was more interested in telling this small-scale story in which The Train didn’t leave the station until the 90th minute of the movie.

But all that changed once Lancaster decided that this was not the kind of film he wanted to make at that point in his career. Lancaster was coming off a series of flops- films like Birdman of the Alcatraz and The Leopard, which were highly successful artistically, but big commercial failures, and his stardom was on shaky ground. Hence, he needed a big box office hit to reclaim his stardom. Making “The Train” an action-adventure film was part of this agenda. So, Arthur Penn was fired just 3 days into filming, and Frankenheimer, who had already made 3 films with Lancaster, was brought in to take over. Frankenheimer did a complete overhaul of the project, totally rewriting the script and making it almost three times a bigger film that it was originally intended to; which meant that the budget and the schedule went totally haywire, but since the studio liked what Frankenheimer was doing with the film, they acceded to his every demand, including gifting him a Ferrari and allocating funds for shooting additional action sequences after the film was complete. Though Lancaster and Frankenheimer worked together in 5 films, they were never friends; Lancaster was just too egotistical and temperamental to be friends with anyone, but both of them found a unique actor-director synthesis in their working relationship, and “The Train” is the definitive film that symbolizes their partnership. Like i said about Frankenheimer, Lancaster also made two kinds of films in his career: first, in which he is the charming, athletic, ever-grinning, swashbuckling hero as seen in films like Vera Cruz, Crimson Pirate etc.; the other is the sullen, intense, brooding hero of Brute Force, The Leopard, Seven Days in May etc. “The Train” finds Lancaster mixing up these two personas: he’s agile, athletic and heroic as he ever has been, but he’s also brooding, pessimistic, and never flashing that big-tooth grin of his. The Train features some of the most kinetic, visually complex filmmaking Frankenheimer had ever undertaken, with Lancaster giving his most physically robust performance; this is the last big action picture ever made in black and white, and it adds tremendously to the movie; because Frankenheimer shot much of the film in long unbroken takes, with deep focus lenses, it gives a ‘Newsreel’ like authenticity to the proceedings; not to mention the fact that they could save lot of money on dressing up locations and sets. as the details are not as prominently visible in Black & White as opposed to color.

For what is such an action-packed picture, The Train begins rather serenely: the camera slowly panning in from a night exterior into the interiors of an art museum. There is total silence on the soundtrack, as we are informed that this is Paris of August 1944. The Allies are almost at the gates of the city, and the city is expected to be liberated in a couple of weeks. Here, we get the first glimpse of Colonel Franz von Waldheim, quietly observing the paintings of such masters as Gaugin, Renoir etc. Waldheim is approached by curator Mademoiselle Villard, who thanks him for letting the paintings remaining in Paris, and unmolested, all through the Nazi occupation. Surprisingly for a Nazi, Waldheim comes across a soft-spoken, polished man who genuinely loves art . But it only takes a brief moment for him to reveal his true colors: his soft demeanor gives way to arrogant authority, as he commands his men that all the paintings be packed into craters and loaded on to the train bound for Germany. The moment also marks a transformation in the tone of the film; serenity giving way to kinetic chaos, as the camera movements acquires a dynamism and energy that will be sustained till the end of the film. The movement of the actors within the frame also becomes chaotic; we see soldiers frantically mopping up the paintings and crating them up. This will be followed by an even more bravura sequence: a scene in which the camera wanders around Nazi offices that are hastily being evacuated, eventually focusing on von Waldheim and following him back through the office; Waldheim is there to seek clearance for his train loaded with paintings, which the Wehrmacht believe are useless. They are more concerned with getting the soldiers and ammunition back to Germany, and hence has refused permission for Waldheim’s train. Waldheim deftly argues with them that Paintings are worth millions and could be used to fund the German war effort. He finally prevails and wins clearance for his train.

Meanwhile, Mademoiselle Villard has contacted the French resistance leaders, and prevailed upon them the importance of saving the paintings, which represents the French national heritage. Though the resistance is made up of working class laborers, who has hardly seen a painting in their lives, Villard’s plea does touch a chord with senior Resistance leader, Spinet, but Resistance cell leader and SNCF area inspector, Paul Labiche, rejects the plan outright, telling Villard and Spinet that, “I won’t waste lives on paintings“; The Allies are expected to be in Paris soon, and Labiche’s forces are anyway depleted to carry out a mission of this sort. When Labiche proves unrelenting, Spinet manipulates Train engineer, Papa Boule, into sabotaging the train. In another extraordinary sequence, Papa Boule sabotages the train under the cover of an allied air raid, with Labiche desperately trying to stop him. The scene features Frankenheimer’s dynamic filmmaking working in tandem with Lancaster’s robust athleticism: Labiche attempts to flag down the train from the tower, then sliding down a ladder, running along the tracks and jumping onto the moving locomotive, trying to argue with Papa Boule, and then getting kicked out and falling into the dirt- all this done in a single, unbroken take and performed by Lancaster himself without a stunt double. Though Boule is successful in wrecking the train, he is caught and executed on Waldheim’s orders. This proves to be the transformative moment for Labiche, who now wants revenge for Papa Boule’s death. He joins his fellow resistance members, Didont and Pesquet, and devises an elaborate plan to stop the train from getting into Germany. Labiche, who’s charged with taking the train into Germany by Waldheim, reroutes the train on the journey, changing railway station signage to make it appear to the German escorts as if they are heading to Germany when they have actually turned back toward Paris. Their journey climaxes with a three-way train crash in the small town of Rive-Reine; which means that Waldheim will have to spend precious hours clearing up the tracks using cranes and repairing the train engine to make it fit for travel again. An enraged Waldheim orders Labiche to be killed immediately, and though many of Labiche’s comrades are killed, Labiche manages to escape after being shot in his leg- a plot twist necessitated by Lancaster’s real life knee injury; he will be seen limping for the rest of the film.

The night after the collision, Labiche and Didont plan to paint the tops of three wagons white to warn off Allied aircraft from bombing the art train, but the marking attempt is discovered. and Didont is killed. From here on, it’s a one man crusade by Labiche to delay the train; armed with a machine gun, and struggling with a limp, Labiche makes his way from one part of the track to other, disrupting the railroad. Here again, we witness Lancaster’s physical prowess at its best: Labiche rolling down a mountain and across a road, and staggering down to the track is captured in a single take, with Lancaster performing the entire roll down the mountain himself. Finally, Labiche manages to derail the train  without endangering the paintings or the civilian hostages that the colonel has placed on the locomotive to prevent it from being blown up. Waldheim, now enraged to the point of madness, tries to evacuate the trucks filled with wounded German soldiers from a retreating army convoy and load it with the crates, but he’s stopped in the nick of time by the commanding officer. The train’s small German contingent kills the civilian hostages and joins the retreating convoy. Waldheim chooses to stay behind with the crates containing the paintings. In a mirror image of the opening scene, we see a panning shot in which Labiche slowly limps towards the train, with the crates marked with the names of famous painters strewn all over the ground. Labiche is confronted by Waldheim, who castigates him for having no real interest in the art he has saved: he uses the term “Pearls to an ape” to disparage the worth of these paintings to Labiche. In response, Labiche turns and looks at the murdered hostages and then, without a word, turns back to Waldheim and shoots him, and then walks away leaving the valuable paintings and the murdered hostages behind. The final images of the film is made up of a montage that cross cuts between the civilian corpses and crates containing the paintings, (visually) posing the question as to whether all this loss of human lives were worth it or not?. The answer is left to the audience.

The entire final act of “The Train” works like a silent film, with almost minimal to no dialogue. Lancaster speaks his last line almost 30 minutes before the end of the film; that must be some kind of a record, where the lead actor does not get to speak a single word in the last half hour of the film. Also, in the final scenes of a bloodied & bruised Lancaster becoming a one-man army, and waging an obsessive battle against the Nazis, we see the birth of the modern action hero epitomized by the likes of John Rambo, John Matrix and John McLane, and embodied by such beefy heroes like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in such iconic 80s action films as First Blood, Commando and Die Hard. I’m sure that Stallone and Schwarzenegger did much of their stunts, but they’re absolutely no match for Lancaster- a former circus acrobat. One can only marvel at Lancaster’s dexterity, in not only doing all the action scenes even when he’s physically injured, but also how he accomplish the little technical details, like wiring charges on the track, removing the nuts and bolts, and actually building and repairing rail cars- scenes of striking and welding rail wagons by Lancaster are shot in long takes, leaving no doubt that he’s doing them all by himself. The only other actor who could come close to him in being so convincing on screen in working with such complex machinery is Steve McQueen. Also, Frankenheimer was lucky to get a real Railway yard to shoot most of the film: the big crash sequence in the film was accomplished with real trains and real engines, no miniature work or camera tricks there. For the air raid sequences, real dynamite was used to trigger real explosions; you can feel the shockwaves travelling through the ground during the action sequence. Suffice to say that a war\action drama with this amount of verisimilitude can never be achieved today; since these kind of action sequences would be accomplished on soundstages with green screen and CGI. For that at least “The Train’ is worth watching multiple times today. Even at that time, this film must have been a anomaly, and was realized so realistically because of the fastidiousness of a director like Frankenheimer and a star like Lancaster, as well, as the lucky circumstances by which so much Railway hardware was available to them to play around with.

Unfortunately, the film was not the big box office hit Lancaster and Frankenheimer had hoped for. Worse, it got middling to bad reviews, which is shocking when one look at it today. This film is close to perfection as far as Action\adventure spectacles go, and it’s no big dumb entertainment either. It’s an action picture with smarts and sophistication. The film had cost close to $7 million, which was big money at the time, and grossed only $3 million at US box office. It made double the money outside of U.S., but it wasn’t enough to recover the film’s investment. The failure of the film will force Lancaster to retreat into his strength genre of rousing Westerns; and after one mistake with The Hallelujah Trail(1965), he would hit pay dirt with Richard Brooks’ all-star cast, The Professionals(1966). As for Frankenheimer, he will follow up The Train with his biggest and most spectacular movie, the all-star cast, car racing themed, Cinerama venture, Grand Prix(1966). The film would mark the zenith of his career; post-Grand prix, his career would decline rapidly, mainly due to personal issues like alcoholism. Not only the films he made in that period were box office failures, but they were so bad from a filmmaking perspective that it’s hard to believe that they were made by the same director who made The Train and Grand Prix. He would try to make a comeback with the well received French Connection II and Black Sunday in the mid 70s, but would again fall off the radar. He would reclaim some of his lost directorial sheen with the 1998 Robert De Niro starrer Ronin; actually a very good Europe-set thriller features some of the best car chase sequences. He would also go back to his roots, and direct some acclaimed Television dramas in the 90s like Andersonville and George Wallace– which won a golden globe for Best Miniseries or Television Film. John Frankenheimer passed away in 2002, at the age of 72, from a stroke due to complications following spinal surgery.

One thought on “The Train: Burt Lancaster and John Frankenheimer created the most dynamic, sophisticated and thought-provoking World War II Action picture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s