There are plenty of films that feature train journeys, several where the whole narrative takes place on a train, but the number of films that combine an exciting narrative and involve every aspect of railway operation is very small. The Train not only fulfils those criteria but it is also brilliantly performed, photographed and directed. 1964 is around the peak period of ‘Hollywood in Europe’ when American money helped fund films that were both co-produced with European film industries and used European crews and actors. The film is an adaptation of a French memoir, Le front de l’art by Rose Valland. Wikipedia has a useful entry on the story of this remarkable woman. Franklin Cohen and Frank Davis wrote a screenplay loosely based on Valland’s book and several other writers also contributed. IMDb implies that the film may have had a separate French version, presumably dubbed as the dialogue is almost entirely in English with some German, despite the use of French actors.
The narrative deals with the short period in August 1944 when the German command in Paris realised that the Allies would reach the capital within days. Plans were quickly made to send armaments and men back to Germany by train despite the danger posed by Allied air attacks. Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has his own plans to send to Germany the stolen artworks he has been guarding in a Paris Museum. Mlle. Millard (Suzanne Flon) who has catalogued all the works informs the Résistance, pleading that the train must be delayed but not damaged. She emphasises the importance of France’s ‘artistic heritage’. The man who has the skills to organise a complex résistance plan is Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), the Paris ‘yardmaster’ and effective controller of the line. At first he is reluctant to risk the lives of résistance fighters and undercover workers as well as the ‘civilians’ who may be killed in reprisals. But eventually he is convinced by the argument and creates a highly complex plan that will involve dozens of railway workers across Northern France. I won’t spoil the clever tricks played on the German guards on the train.
This is a long film (133 mins) but the energy levels never drop and the film is spectacular in its use of landscape and railway infrastructure and locos etc. As long as younger audiences can get over the fact that it is in black and white and in the European ‘widescreen’ format of 1.66:1, everyone should enjoy the film – remember though that it is a résistance film and there are many deaths as well as victories for the rail workers. Director John Frankenheimer, though he emerged from US TV, initially as an actor, built a career which focused on large scale action pictures – often in a European setting. He also worked with Burt Lancaster on several films. Lancaster himself was a frequent visitor to Europe, making films in the UK and Italy as well as France. Paul Scofield offers a relatively early example of a Brit chosen to portray a Nazi Colonel with arrogance and an obsession about getting these artworks to Berlin. Elsewhere, however, the film offers us the great Michel Simon as an engine-driver close to retirement, Jeanne Moreau (as entrancing as always) as the proprietor of a ‘station hotel’ and Albert Rémy as Labiche’s right-hand man. The film is photographed by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz and music is by Michel Jarre.
I saw this film on release in 1964 and though I didn’t remember the details of the plot, I do remember the impact it made on me, sitting in the stalls of Blackpool’s cavernous 3,000 seat Odeon. It would be good to see it on the big screen again. Once you’ve seen it, you should also look out for René Clément’s La Bataille du rail (France 1946) which tells the story of the sabotage of the railways by résistance groups in a neo-realist style soon after the events themselves.
In the clip below, Labiche has managed to sabotage the train and halt it, but an Allied air raid is due and his men must paint the roofs of carriages white to warn the bombers not to destroy the paintings.