If you’re going to give your film a simple, descriptive but commonplace title, you’re going to have to make sure it’s a good film if you want people to remember it even a year later, let alone nearly four decades later. This 1964 Burt Lancaster film currently has a 7.8 / 10 on IMDb, so it seems that there are some who remember it and rate it well. And well they should, because in at least this instance, IMDb’s aggregation of voters has the right of it.
The Train is a smart war-time action film, but it’s not like most war films. Set in World War II, it doesn’t focus on the front lines, but is centered around the French Resistance, and one particular train: a train carrying the greatest paintings of French (and European) history. Nazi Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has taken the paintings and is planning to have them transported to Germany. Paul Labiche (Lancaster) is the French Resistance member who winds up trying to divert the train long enough for the Allied Forces to end the war and prevent France from losing a piece of its heritage.
Because the paintings must be preserved, the train can’t simply be blown up. This does not, however, preclude the possibility of causing wanton destruction to everything else in the area.
Labiche is an interesting contradiction of a character. Though he’s the leader of a cell of the Resistance, he’s a reluctant participant in the plot at the same time. He’s running low on men — running out of men as they don’t come back from missions — and he doesn’t feel that the paintings, valuable though they are, are worth the lives of any of his men. His men, however, disagree, and after a series of attempts on their own to get things started, Labiche gets sucked into the scheme against his better judgment. Pesquet and Didont (Charles Millot and Albert Rémy) wind up serving as his assistants while Labiche runs the mission, continuing his role as leader even though he was opposed to the idea. His men keep encouraging him to continue with it when they have moments away from Nazi eyes. They have their work cut out for them, both in pulling off the theft of a train itself, and in keeping Labiche convinced, as he keeps seeing the aftermath of their efforts; this is reinforced by widowed hotelier Christine (Jeanne Moreau) who while loyal to the French cause, has wearied of the bloodshed that results from the Resistance.
The movie starts off a little slow (and I think it’s 133 minute run time could have easily been pared down some), but once Colonel van Waldheim orders the train out the yard, the schemes kick in, and they’re a treat to watch. While this movie is loosely inspired by actual events, the movie gets a lot more inventive than the real events, where the train was apparently just looping around Paris until the Allies arrived. The movie’s tricks range from casual diversion, to orchestrating wrecks of other trains, from damaging rails to replacing the signage of the towns they’re going by so the Nazis on the train won’t know they’re being led astray. And while I was thinking during my viewing that the special effects on the train wrecks were surprisingly well-done considering the time the film was made, looking into the making of it afterward revealed that I was incorrect. The special effects were not well-done, because there were no special effects at all. Director John Frankenheimer, in a move sure to irritate the accountants at United Artists and delight fans of sheer mayhem, had decided that nothing would do for his film except actually crashing real trains.
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between “cinematic genius” and “certifiably insane”.
In a similar quest for verisimilitude, Burt Lancaster performed all of his own stunts, even after an injury — during his golf game, not during one of his many leaps from train to train or over fences — left him with a limp for the duration of filming (Frankenheimer simply wrote in a scene where Lancaster’s character was shot, to explain the limp.) It’s one of many things that makes Lancaster’s performance in this film great; because he only occasionally talks during the film, he says a lot with his expressions and posture, and with the actions he and his comrades perform. The film starts out dialogue heavy, but as it goes on, it shifts to a focus on the action, and it suffers only a little by the silence of its lead actors. Though Scofield does get enough lines to demonstrate his character’s slow decline into frustrated rage.
They missed out on the opportunity to coin the famous “No Ticket” line.
The Train takes a bit of patience, as it has a slow start and you have to pay attention to figure out what the train hijackers are doing — it’s not going to be explained to you until the results come about. But an assumption that the audience can think things through for themselves is far from a bad thing; many newer movies could stand to learn a lesson from The Train. And once the film gets going, it maintains a steady pace of action that is interesting both in its own right, and also just by virtue of not being the standard shoot-em-up action feature. It may not be for everyone, but it’s a very solid film. Plus, you have to respect any film where the director had the guts to demolish multiple trains.