Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Train (1964)

It's 65 years since the end of the World War II, and yet as a nation the British are still complacent about the fact, having never actually suffered the indignity of enemy occupation. Across the Channel things were rather different. There haven't been that many English language films about France's torrid 4 years of grudging subservience to their most despised enemy; on television there was the 1970's drama Secret Army (later parodied in the phenomenally successful 'Allo 'Allo.) On French shores Marcel Ophuls' epic documentary The Sorrow and the Pity covered several aspects of the German occupation in fascinating detail, but for me the most potent depiction of the German occupation is undoubtedly John Frankenheimer's The Train.

The setting is occupied Paris, 1944, not long after D-Day, with the city on the verge of being liberated and the German army getting ready to cut and run. The film, based on a true story, was made in the groundbreaking 1960's when Frankenheimer especially was on a roll after a string of marvellously atmospheric black and white thrillers, beginning his association with Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May, then moving on to The Manchurian Candidate, one of the most terrifying political thrillers ever made.

Frankenheimer boarded The Train late, after Arthur Penn had been fired after one week for making a film that was supposedly dwelling too much on the power of art to compel ordinary people to fight, and Lancaster, fearful that he was making another international flop (after Visconti's The Leopard) brought in Frankenheimer, whose bold style immediately makes itself felt from the moment when German soldiers blunder into the Jeu de Pomme Museum to steal the works of Degas, Cezanne, Brach, etc., for what becomes in effect a railway thriller of cat-and-mouse, between Lancaster's railway controller Labiche and the magnetic, obsessed Colonel Von Waldheim, a riveting performance by Paul Scofield who embodies all the qualities of Arthur Penn's original synopsis.

Though these men know little about art, they're already hooked.

Lancaster and Scofield make for a fascinating clash of athlete versus aesthete, of brawn versus brains, with Burt energetically throwing himself into the action in nearly all his own stunts, including one bravura sequence where jumps onto the art train being driven (by French veteran Michel Simon) through an air raid on the Vaires rail depot, which within minutes is spectacularly blown apart in one of several eye-boggling full-scale action sequences, with the filmmakers given unprecedented access by the SNCF to blow up whole sections of their rail network - which were due for redevelopment anyway.
Another example is at Rive Reine station (as played by Acquigny station) where the French railwaymen engineer the art train to go roaming round in a loop and ram into a previously derailed engine, and then in turn is rammed by another engine from behind. The resulting carnage comes, inevitably, at a high price, to both humans and trains, but the engines are the stars in their self-destructive final blaze of glory.

And all for what? As Lancaster's Labiche explains to sympathetic hotel owner Christine (Jeanne Moreau): "the national heritage, the pride of France. Crazy, isn't it?" The most ingenious, and I suspect, true to life aspect of the film is the effort to which the vigilant French railway workers cover their tracks to deceive the Germans into thinking they are travelling home when they are being detoured instead round Paris.

The final killer blow for Waldheim comes when the nearly exhausted Labiche is left on his own - with most of his railway friends killed - and unscrews a few nuts and bolts from one of the rails, sufficient to derail the art train with no hope of salvage, as the German army is in rapid retreat from the approaching Allies.

The end is as magnanimous and starkly anti-war as anything you'll see, as Labiche shoots the colonel, discards his rifle, and hobbles away leaving the train, all the masterpieces, and several dead heroes lying with them. The film closes with a brilliant last note from Maurice Jarre (who composes a poignant, nostalgic score in honour of his fellow Frenchmen) as the United Artists logo appears.

It is that last note that stays with me most in the memory. That, and the sight of Burt Lancaster climbing down a stepladder from the signal box without using his feet.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films