Christmas TV schedules these days hold little interest for me, but I found this film on BBC iPlayer and enjoyed it as entertaining and diverting. It turned out to be more interesting than I expected having ignored its release in the Summer of 1965. Von Ryan’s Express was a welcome success for 20th Century Fox in 1965 after the financial difficulties caused by the elongated production of Cleopatra in 1963. It represents several trends apparent in Hollywood ‘international’ filmmaking in the 1960s. First, it is essentially an independent production based on a property owned by 20th Century Fox and a production funded and guaranteed distribution by the studio. It seems an early example of the later practice of creating a production company for a single production. Second, the main part of the production took place in Europe, mainly in Italy but also with a key section in Spain. In this case, the crew and ‘creative team’ seem to be solidly American but the cast includes relatively few Americans among the British, Italian and German players. Thirdly the film forms part of the cycle of large-scale, ‘war adventure’ films that marked a change in how the Second World War in Europe was represented on the big screen. The most successful of these were films like The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961), The Great Escape (US 1963), Operation Crossbow (1965) and The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965). Each had a substantial budget, support from a Hollywood studio, an international cast and European locations. Though they were mostly in English, some of these films, including Von Ryan’s Express, also had dialogue in other languages with subtitles in English. What each of these titles have is a great ‘action adventure’ idea or concept with definable ‘hero’ characters and the possibility of spectacular set pieces. Apart from a few moments when moral questions arise, the state of the war and/or philosophical questions about why are we fighting? or what are we fighting for?, are not allowed the narrative drive.

Ryan appears at the POW camp and meets Capt. Oriani (Sergio Fantoni)

The setting is Southern Italy in the late summer of 1943. The Allied invasion of Sicily and then the mainland across the Straits of Messina is well underway. An American P-38 Lightning is hit by enemy fire and crashes. The pilot is quickly captured by Italian troops and taken away before the Germans can find him. He is taken to a POW camp where Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra) of the USAAF finds himself suddenly made the Senior Officer in charge of the other prisoners, who are mostly British and led by Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). Fincham accepts Ryan’s authority but criticises the American’s ideas about ‘lying low’ in the camp until it is liberated by the advancing Allies. I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t seen the film, but Fincham is proved correct in one respect – when the Italian surrender is announced, the Germans are quick to round up the Allied prisoners and to attempt to take them to Austria by train. At this point the narrative gradually changes from a POW drama to a railway chase as eventually the prisoners overpower their German guards and take over the train. But can they somehow re-route it to end their journey in neutral Switzerland?

Ryan with two of the Americans in the camp

The railway ‘chase’ (German troop trains are not far behind the prison train at all times) is effectively a different genre and the filmmakers here make the most of the possibilities with the co-operation of the Italian State Railways and also Spanish Railways to stand in for mountain travel in Switzerland. It’s worth mentioning the other wartime railway film of this period, John Frankenheimer’s The Train (France-Italy-US 1964). The major difference being that Frankenheimer’s film, starring Burt Lancaster, is in black & white and is generally more ‘realist’ in its portrayal of French railways and the detail of rail operations.

The principal characters played by John Leyton, Frank Sinatra, Edward Mulhare, Sergio Fantoni and Trevor Howard

Ryan becomes ‘von Ryan’ in a dig by the Trevor Howard character because his plans seem to play into German hands. The film was something of a triumph for Sinatra who at 50 was beginning to feel his film career was in decline. He tried to buy the rights to the original novel by David Westheimer (who had been an American flyer in Italian and German POW camps). When he discovered it had been bought by Fox, he lobbied to get the role. One odd side note is that in his contract he supposedly got agreement that his scenes would be filmed using the new Panavision lenses rather than Fox’s own CinemaScope technologies – the opening credits still maintain this is a CinemaScope film but Sinatra appears to have got his way. The film was produced and directed by Mark Robson and photographed by the veteran, William H. Daniels. Robson had learned his craft mainly as an editor for Val Newton at RKO, who also gave him directorial opportunities and by the 1960s Robson was a top tier director. Jerry Goldsmith was responsible for the music. The other Sinatra story is that he insisted on a downbeat ending, supposedly to avoid the possibility of a sequel. The ending was changed for the novel and is, perhaps, unexpected for this kind of film. Sinatra went on to make more films including his ‘detective’ trilogy in the late 1960s in which he has the lead role, but none of his later films had the critical and audience support given to Von Ryan’s Express.

With Sinatra and Trevor Howard dressed as German soldiers, Edward Mulhare as the padre fools the German authorities with his language skills

The one aspect of the film that didn’t work for me is the appearance of Raffaella Carrà as a Nazi officer’s girlfriend. Her performance is fine but the construction of her role is simply sexist and exploitative. As far as I can see Carrà was a young woman who had already at 23/24 become a well-known celebrity figure in Italy as an actor and singer but here she is in one sense simply ‘eye candy’ with her narrative function being to fool the British officer Orde (John Leyton) but who is then ‘dealt with by’ Ryan. Her commercial value to the film in European markets is emphasised by the fact she is fourth-billed and appears in around a third of all the publicity photos in various poses, bound and gagged as a prisoner, putting on her stockings and generally pouting and posing. This contrasts with similar films like The Train, in which the female characters have important roles in the narrative development. Carrà is the only woman in this film. Very impressive, however, was the Irish actor  Edward Mulhare playing a chaplain whose German language skills enable him to pass as a German officer.

In summation, Von Ryan’s Express is a good example of Hollywood’s international appeal in the 1960s, acting as both a commercial proposition and a star vehicle for Frank Sinatra. It offers professionally made entertainment  but doesn’t really add anything to what we might want to know about the Second World War in Italy. The trailer for the film is long and shows many of the key moments.