Ranking: #79/111

Director: John Frankenheimer (USA-France)        

Genre: War Drama

This is a first-rate war drama created by a director who was uniquely gifted at capturing action on the big screen, while able, at the same time, to narrate a story rich in themes and full of meaning. John Frankenheimer, who made the masterpiece Birdman of Alcatraz as well the dazzling Grand Prix, threw everything into The Train to make it as thought-provoking as it is exciting and suspenseful. As was the case with Birdman of Alcatraz, Frankenheimer based much of his screenplay on the facts of his subject-matter. Here, the story revolves around the looting of valuable art-works by the Nazis towards the end of World War 2.

The film opens at a time when Paris is close to being liberated. As the clock is ticking on the German occupiers, an obsessive Nazi officer, Colonel Franz von Waldheim, is determined to transport masterpieces of modern art, stolen from French museums and private art collections by the occupying army, back to Germany. These are classic works of Western civilisation, in addition to being part of France’s national heritage, and the precious cargo becomes a symbol of the fight to save civilisation itself.

Von Waldheim is played with controlled passion by that fine English actor of stage and screen, Paul Scofield. His transformation into a cultured, but cold-hearted, Nazi is amazing to behold. An interesting footnote here is that shortly after the outbreak of World War 2, Scofield tried to enlist in the British Army, but failed a physical examination because he had “crossed toes”. One would never think in watching him live, breathe and speak as Colonel von Waldheim that here was an actor who had never served in the military. 

His nemesis in the film is Paul Labiche, a veteran French National Railways inspector, who is also a cell leader of the French Resistance. When art curator, Mademoiselle Villard, seeks help from the French Resistance to stop the transport of the art works, Labiche is initially not interested. However, he later agrees to take part in the clandestine and dangerous operation. Once in, though, he’s fully in: body, heart and mind. Burt Lancaster, who, unlike Paul Scofield, did actually see active military service during the war, plays Labiche with such intensity that one forgets and forgives his lack of a French accent. A former acrobat, salesman and singing waiter before becoming an actor, Lancaster was born to act. He must rate as one of the finest male actors in American cinema, along with the likes of Charlton Heston and James Stewart. It is a tribute to Frankenheimer’s directorial skills that two of his finest performances, in Birdman of Alcatraz and The Train, resulted from teaming up with this brilliant American director.

The conflict between the two main characters, Von Waldheim and Labiche, is one of the best pairings for the antagonist and the protagonist I’ve seen in cinema history. It’s absolutely visceral, even though mostly under the surface. There’s an inherent tension between them, just arising from the situation they’re in, but these two top actors seemed, at times, to be competing against each other to see whose performance would be the greatest.

Shot in beautiful black-and-white, it’s an incredibly textured film, bringing the trains, the crew and train station alive in living sounds and imagery. There are some shots with a stunning depth of field and visual complexity. The camera work is mobile and dynamic. So, The Train is a marvellous spectacle, as well as a suspenseful drama.

The clinical editing style provides for a rapid pace which helps to sustain the narrative tension. It’s a strongly constructed film. On top of all of this, its dialogue is hard-hitting, but subtle. The acting from the whole cast is disciplined from start to finish. Everyone delivers in this film, from Frankenheimer and his film crew, to the editor and the actors. The director must have provided inspirational leadership to achieve this.

Frankenheimer asks a deep question in the movie, one which has bearing on our own search in this essay for works which indubitably constitute film art. The question The Train asks is: “What is the true value of masterpieces of culture and art?” Von Waldheim believes art is only for the elites who appreciate it and who have the power to preserve it for the benefit of civilisation.

But Frankenheimer has a different view. As the film ends, he pulls off an amazing closing shot of the ransacked art works, the derailed train and the dead bodies. It’s a scene which encompasses the film’s whole meaning in one picture. Great art may be worth dying for in a war, this sad picture seems to say, but its true place is to bring about peace between nations through a mutual appreciation of the beauty which originally inspired its creation.