Von Ryan’s Express: Frank Sinatra leads a group of Allied POWs to freedom in this interesting and entertaining variation on the WWII prison escape Adventure

Von Ryan’s Express(1965), directed by Mark Robson from a novel by David Westheimer, is a WWII Action\Adventure thriller featuring Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard in lead roles. The film provides an interesting variation on the ‘Prison Escape’ drama template, with Sinatra’s character hijacking a prison train to lead a group of Allied POWs to freedom.

Another World War II Action\adventure with a train at the center of the action; Von Ryan’s Express(1965), piloted by journeyman Director, Mark Robson, with none other than ‘Chairman of the Board’ Frank Sinatra himself in the lead, may have released just a year after John Frankenheimer’s ultimate WWII Train epic, The Train, but doesn’t possess half the technical virtuosity or verisimilitude of that Burt Lancaster starring train classic. But that’s understandable, since Robson, who made his name by directing “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls” is not in the league of a cinematic virtuoso like Frankenheimer. Neither is Sinatra physically or artistically as accomplished a performer as Lancaster. While “The Train” was shot completely on location in France, with every piece of action accomplished for ‘real’. “Von Ryan” was mostly shot on the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot, with some outdoor shooting done in Italy and Spain, and most (Thankfully not all) of the train action accomplished with back-screen projection on studio soundstages. But to give Robson and Sinatra their due, they have put together a very entertaining package, with enough thrills and thrilling action set pieces, not to mention a fast-paced screenplay that might be preposterous in its conception- POWs hijacking a train in Italy bound for Germany and rerouting it to neutral Switzerland- but the execution manages to make the whole enterprise convincing, at least for the full duration of the film’s running time. Sinatra may not throw himself into action with the agility and commitment of a Lancaster- no rolling down mountains or suffering the gruels of a lengthy location shoot for the Chairman, he was addicted to the luxuries of his affluent lifestyle, and would take off for recreational activities or on a trip to Vegas with his rat-pack pals at a drop of a hat- but once in front of the camera he was a Pro-never missing a line or a mark. He also possessed a cool and unique style of acting (and line reading) that may come across as if he’s either sleepwalking or phoning it in, but in the right kind of role- “From here to Eternity”, “The Manchurian Candidate”- it work wonders. Thankfully, his Col. Joseph Ryan is just that kind of character. That’s not all, Sinatra was the first person who was interested in turning David Westheimer’s novel into a movie, and when he failed to buy the rights, he actively campaigned for the lead role and won it. But that didn’t stop him from doing things “his way”. He changed the upbeat ending of the novel to a downbeat one, and also made sure that Joseph Landon was brought in to rewrite all of his dialogue to suit his unique line reading skills, despite the fact that Wendell Hayes has done a thoroughly professional job of adapting the novel for the screen.

The film opens in Italy, in August 1943. The Allies have captured Sicily and Italy is close to surrender, forcing the Germans to take control of the country. It’s at this point in time that USAAF P-38 Pilot Col. Joseph Ryan(Frank Sinatra) is shot down over Italy. He’s immediately taken to a POW camp run by a ‘Mussolini’ wannabe, Major Basilio Battaglia(Adolfo Celi). The camp is filled with mainly British POWs, and when Ryan arrives, there’s a near riot going on: Battaglia’s dictatorial ways have led to the death of the commanding officer, and the prisoners, under the leadership of Senior British officer, Major Eric Fincham(Trevor Howard) is demanding that Battaglia come down and face the consequences of his actions. That’s not all, due to their repeated escape attempts, Battaglia has also cut off all Red Cross supplies to the prisoners, and hence the prisoners are in pretty bad shape-unshaven, unclean, sick and dressed in rags. Since Ryan outranks Fincham, he assumes command and immediately strikes a note of reconciliation with Battaglia. As the Allies are expected to be there in no time, Ryan believes that escape attempts are useless. So as an act of good faith, he reveals the locations of the escape tunnels dug by the prisoners to Battaglia- much to the chagrin of Fincham- in exchange for better treatment and release of Red Cross supplies to the prisoners. An overjoyed Battaglia complies, but this pragmatic act turns Ryan into a traitor in the eyes of Fincham and his men. Things get further complicated when Battaglia goes back on his word and refuses to issue new clothing. A defiant Ryan orders prisoners to strip and burn their filthy uniforms. Now, Battaglia is left with no option but to issue new clothes, but he punishes Ryan for his defiance by throwing him into the sweat box- the same box in which the earlier commander had died.

Fortunately, Ryan fares better than his predecessor; rather than sweating out in the box for days, and perhaps to his death he finds himself released pretty quickly: Italy has surrendered and the prison guards have fled, leaving behind Battaglia and Capt. Oriani(Sergio Fantoni)- Battaglia’s translator, who’s sympathetic to the Allies’ cause. The British promptly try Battaglia as a war criminal, with Fincham acting as judge. Battaglia portrays himself as a broken man who has repudiated fascism. Ryan’s idealism once again prompts him to take a more humane approach. Rather than executing him, Ryan sentences Battaglia to the sweat box- once again invoking Fincham’s wrath. Fincham warns Ryan that if one prisoner died because of this action he will make him pay heavily. An attack by a German fighter plane forces the POWs to flee to the countryside. With Oriani volunteering to contact the Allies, Ryan and others decide to wait out in some ruins. To their utter shock, they are once again taken prisoners, this time by the advancing Germans, and are loaded up into a train to transport them to a German Stalag. Fincham suspects Oriani of betrayal, but it’s soon revealed that it was Battaglia- released from sweat box by the Germans- who was behind their capture, and a severely beaten-up Oriani is now a fellow prisoner in their Train carriage. Once again, Ryan’s idealism had led to their defeat- that’s not all, the Germans shoot and kill all the ill prisoners. Enraged, Fincham mockingly refers to Ryan as “Von Ryan”-as all his actions seem to benefit the enemy- and tells him that he will soon have his “Iron Cross”.

But Ryan still has some aces up his sleeve: he manages to remove the railcar floorboards, which allow them to slip through train tracks, get ton top of the train, overpower the guards, and with the help of a carload  of prisoners they had liberated, take control of the train entirely. Ryan and Fincham also capture the German Commander, Major von Klemment(Wolfgang Preiss) and his mistress, Gabriella(Raffaella Carrà ). But even after this daring act, Ryan and POWs are far from safe- there’s an SS train closely following behind them, and will follow them all the way to Innsbruck, Austria which is their destination. Also, Klemment has to check in at every station on the route to receive orders to proceed further. Through some trickery, the POWs switch their train onto a different line at Bologna, while the troop train continues on toward Innsbruck. Now the first problem solved, POWs turn to Allied chaplain, Captain Costanzo(Edward Mulhare) to solve the second problem. Costanzo was educated in Germany, and can pass for a German officer very convincingly. He’s tasked with impersonating Von Klemment at every station he’s due to visit. After some initial trepidation, the Chaplain slips into his role pretty convincingly, to the point that he even intimidates the Gestapo. A Gestapo agent’s overzealousness’ in following Ryan into the main train car causes some tense moments, but it turns out to be a false alarm, as the agent turns out to be a black-marketer interested only in Ryan’s American-made watch.

As their journey proceeds comfortably further, they suddenly face danger from a least expected source. Fincham has been insisting that Ryan get rid of Klemment and Gabriella, but Ryan, ever the humanist, would have none of it, and preferred having them gagged and imprisoned. Gabriella, who appears to be rather innocent, vulnerable and a reluctant mistress to Klemment, shows surprising resourcefulness and loyalty in cutting herself and Klemment loose. They try to shoot their way out of the train, killing some POWs in the process, only to be gunned down by Ryan. Even though it was necessary, the act of shooting an unarmed women in the back shocks Ryan to his core. He finally realizes that one has to indulge in some uncivilized acts in the time of war that eventually go against your ideals. But Ryan does not have much time to brood over his actions, a new crisis presents itself when their train gets caught up in an allied bombardment of an Axis oil storage. Three men are dead, a lot many wounded and a few boxcars catch fire as a result of this attack. Now, their only chance of escape is to reroute the train at Milan to neutral Switzerland. But it’s not going to be easy;  Waffen-SS troops, led by Colonel Gortz, have discovered Ryan’s plan, and Gortz leads a troop train to intercept Ryan’s train before it crosses through the Alps. Ryan’s train also receive fire from German aircraft, with a portion of the railroad getting severely damaged in the attack. Ryan, Fincham, and others stay behind to hold off the fast advancing SS Train, while the rest of the POWs repair the line so the train can proceed further. The SS Train arrives just as the POWs are finished repairing the tracks. In the ensuing battle, Ryan sacrifices himself so that rest of the POWs can board the train and safely get across the border into Switzerland.

One thing one immediately notices about the film is that it recycles (or rips off or is inspired by) elements from every successful WWII action picture made unto that time. From “Bridge on the River Kwai”, we get a POW camp run by a Tyrant and the conflict between a strict British officer and rather liberal American soldier. From “Guns of Navarone”, we get an idealistic and ‘decent’ hero whose noble and civilized acts are out of place in a world afflicted by war. From “The Great Escape”, we get the hotshot American Air force pilot who is shot down, as well as an elaborate escape attempt from a POW camp, and finally, from “The Train”, we get the adventures surrounding a Train during WWII, only difference being that there, the Allies were trying to stop a Nazi Train from leaving, here, the Allies are hijacking a train to escape from Nazis. Obviously, “Von Ryan’s Express” isn’t setting out to be a deep and meaningful war movie. It’s not aiming to do anything path breaking, just to tweak the already established formula in interesting ways. It wants to entertain, to thrill the audience, to take them out of the stuffy prison camp and onto a fast moving train. That itself is an interesting variation on the ‘Prison escape’ template. In “The Great Escape”, the two thirds of the film is about getting out of the POW camp. Here, the escape from POW camp is over in first half hour, it’s the second stage that’s the focus of the action, and it’s here that influences from Frankenheimer’s “The Train” comes in handy- switching train tracks and battles with spitfires. Once the film leaves the “Bridge On The River Kwai” like prison camp, where the characters for the story are formed, the film turns into a rip-roaring adventure piece that’s garnished with enough moments of genuine suspense. Also, the main moral conflict regarding an idealistic – and thereby a flawed- hero at the center of a war\Action movie is perhaps better resolved in this film than in “Navarone”. There, Gregory peck gets away without getting his hands dirty. Here, we see Sinatra’s hero making mistakes, and then forced to atone for mistakes by indulging in violent acts which he’s loathe to perform. He’s an amateur, who has just about a year’s worth of experience as a soldier, and it shows in his actions. And finally, there’s the downbeat resolution, which adheres to an old-fashioned code (as well as the old production code) where the hero who commits immoral acts has to pay for it with his life. That’s a surprisingly serious and thought-provoking element that has been well integrated into a film that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a robust and fun entertainer.

Mark Robson directs the film with great flair, especially the action sequences. Obviously, he’s no David Lean or even John Sturges, and he does what he can within his limitations and the limited ambitions of the movie. I wish the POW camp scenes in the first act were trimmed. They’re rather excruciating to watch, especially having already seen superior stuff in “Kwai” and “Great Escape”, which had far more developed and interesting characterizations and character interactions. Here, the characterization is merely on the surface level. Also, the film doesn’t catch fire until the POWs are loaded onto the train. Then it becomes a bonafide, fun escapist adventure. It does not get bogged down by the need to adhere to history or ruminating on the horrors of war or imparting a larger message to the mankind, as a lot of pure mainstream films of today seems to be doing. Thankfully, it doesn’t have an ounce of pretentiousness and thrives on just being an solid action/adventure movie, one that uses real life events as its backdrop. Robson manages a terrific pace throughout, which goes a long way in executing this rather farfetched plot convincingly. As already mentioned, the film does not possess the technical or artistic virtues of “The Train”. But the film still has some very effective stunt work- the climactic bridge confrontations are thrillingly executed, and possess a great amount of realism, thanks to the use of real aircrafts and train in the sequence, and the breathtaking locations of Andalucía, Spain. The Messerschmitts featured are the real deal, and not a substitute. The film’s richly detailed widescreen photography is by veteran, William H. Daniels- the favorite cinematographer of Greta Garbo. This is a film that’s specifically designed for the widescreen, you can see that clearly in the film’s expansive compositions, and if one’s watching it on a “pan & scan” copy, one does miss a lot of the film. The great Jerry Goldsmith, who was then Fox’s in-house music composer and go-to guy for war films, composes the film’s thrilling score that helps a lot in keeping the momentum going.

Now coming to the cast, my favorite of the lot is Edward Mulhare, who, as the priest impersonating the German Commander gives the best performance in the film- very jittery and nervous one moment and tyrannically tough the next. There’s a really fun moment in the film, where after impersonating the German rather too well, the chaplain return to his train car and passes out. Adolfo Celi, who in the same year would play James Bond’s nemesis, Largo in Thunderball, is sufficiently clownish as the the sadistic Prison warden- the role’s no more serious than a caricature. Now coming to the lead duo of the film, I’m afraid I’m not a fan of either Trevor Howard or Sinatra. Howard annoys me no end in the first half of the film, always whining and grumpy, that one wishes that Sinatra would shoot him instead of the Germans; though he does mellow down in the latter half of the film, and becomes a nice foil to Sinatra. I never thought Sinatra would make a good or convincing action star, and I’m right. He looks rather ridiculous in that German army uniform and helmet, and ill at ease while using weapons in the action sequences. At 50, he’s too long in the tooth to cut it as an Army Air force pilot. This is a role that a Steve Mc Queen, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery or even Paul Newman could pull off far more effectively with much less effort. But I warmed up to him during the course of the film, he really works hard in the role, and aces most of the dramatic stuff in his characteristic cool style. The character has been turned into a flawed-everyman so that it would suit Sinatra better, and it definitely helps. He’s a guy who makes mistakes, learn form mistakes and in the end becomes a legend the hard way. I don’t think that would have suited the more macho stars of the time. Sinatra’s faith in the film was vindicated when it turned out to be his biggest hit of the 1960s, and perhaps his biggest hit as a solo hero leading man. Sadly, none of Frank Sinatra’s subsequent films achieved the same critical and commercial success as this one. In fact they all proved to be a mixed bag, to put it as politely as possible and have dated dreadfully. On a personal level, this would mark a turning point for him, as during filming he was introduced to Mia Farrow, who would become his third wife. The success of the film was a welcome relief for Twentieth Century-Fox studios as well, which was trying to stay alive after the mega-debacle of Cleopatra(1963). Fox, in a bid to prove that they were still a big player in the industry, had allocated a lavish budget for the film, and thankfully it worked out fine. Mark Robson continued to have an uneven career- he made the big budget disaster spectacle, Earthquake in 1974, but nothing notable apart from that. Curiously, he ended his career with another ‘Train film’, the jinxed “Avalanche Express” that would see the death of its star, Robert Shaw, and director Robson before it was completed.


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