For the fourth time in three years director John Frankenheimer teamed with top box office star Burt Lancaster. They had moved from a courtroom exercise, to a prison flick, then onto a political thriller. All three films (The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May) are outstanding. But there is something about this film that resonates within and it gets better with every viewing.
Perhaps it’s the struggle of the underdog and what men value so much that they freely make the ultimate sacrifice for.
In Nazi occupied Paris, Paul Scofield’s German officer has collected the works of the world’s greatest artists. Gaugin, Picasso, Degas, Van Gogh etc. He has no intention of leaving them behind as the German forces retreat with the war all but lost. He makes his case to army brass that the paintings are worth far more than the life of any soldier(s). He demands that a troop train be handed over to him for the transportation of the Nazi plunder.
It’s up to the French resistance to prevent the countries National Heritage, the Pride of France from being taken from her. Enter Burt Lancaster as a wearied train station operator who doubles as a resistance fighter. With the German’s in retreat, he sees no reason to make any attempts at stopping the train which would result in the loss of more French lives.
There are others who believe the artworks should be saved from the clutches of tyranny and when the bodies begin to pile up, Lancaster begins to sway in his decision. Even more so when he comes into personal contact with the arrogant Scofield. When one of Burt’s own engineers is shot down despite his pleas for mercy, Burt knows that he will have to step up and put his own life in harm’s way.
“I’m a railroad man, not a prophet.” Burt tells Scofield when asked if the train will make it back to Germany with Burt serving as the engineer.
So begins the journey of the train and Scofield’s efforts to get it back to German soil. He’s become all encompassed with his goal. No life is safe when it comes to Scofield having his way. Wolfgang Preiss is here as Scofield’s second in command who sees through his commanding officers intentions and has no use for the wasted lives that the artworks are causing yet has no rank to prevent the carnage that Scofield is prepared to dish out to the French railroad workers.
Preiss is very good here and a common face to North American viewers as he was frequently recruited for WW2 pictures like The Longest Day and Anzio as a member of the German brass.
“No one’s ever hurt. Just dead. ” says Lancaster to his fellow fighters as he embarks on a one man fight to stop the train. This is all done rather ingeniously in the middle stages of the film when he reroutes the train with the help of countless men who will be shot for their heroism. It’s all very sobering and Lancaster’s performance is splendid here as he says very little throughout the film. It’s a very physical performance from the former trapeze artist turned Hollywood legend.
The final confrontation is violent, heartbreaking and in the end justifiable. It’s not to be missed.
Much of the pleasure that comes from repeated viewings is in the performances from all involved. Even down to the smallest roles, the actors make one believe they are in the midst of a great battle that has been magnificently captured on camera by Frankenheimer.
Co stars Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon and Michel Simon add an authenticity to the proceedings as do the rest of the cast. They have a weathered look about them in this film that utilizes real location sets with full scale trains. The black and white photography adds a greasy, griminess to the overall look which proves effective.
This is the type of film making that just doesn’t exist anymore. A movie when large scale shots are fully planned out. Planes flying overhead, trains exploding and men running for cover. All being timed to perfection. Full marks to the director and his crew.
Lancaster finds himself a man of action and thankfully he’s up to the challenge. Frankenheimer does a great job of staging action sequences tailor made for Burt’s physical talents. There’s a great one shot of Burt running across a scaffold, sliding down the ladder and then hopping onto an approaching train as it comes in to view. Reminds me of the great gags put forth by Keaton and Lloyd though this time it’s no laughing matter.
Scofield is easy to despise here in a thankless role but that doesn’t diminish the actor’s performance on camera. It’s far too easy to overlook his work here when Burt is playing hero in bigger than life fashion. Saying that you have to realize that Burt’s character is not bigger than life. He’s just a man caught in a situation where he does what needs to be done without any expectations or fanfare. Other than probably dying himself in the struggle.
In the end this is an action film with meaning and one of the highlights of Burt’s career that may not be the first film one thinks of when discussing his many fine efforts.
But it should be……