Von Ryan’s Express (1965)
Occupied Italy, 1943. A plane passes overhead, clearly circling for an imminent crash. German officers arrive at the scene of the downed plane only to find Italian soldiers claiming the pilot was killed in the fiery explosion. The German’s leave and the Italian’s move aside as the camera moves in on the legendary Frank Sinatra as a rousing score from Jerry Goldsmith kicks in.
So begins this great WW2 adventure and for my money the last Sinatra film really worthy of his talents.
Being a fan of action films and the later Sinatra films in general after he outgrew the skinny bobby-soxer years, I settled on this explosive tale with Frank front and center for practically every minute of it’s two hour running time.
Frank as Colonel Ryan finds himself dropped off at a P.O.W. camp overseen by Adolfo Celi. He’s just in time to see a haggard looking Trevor Howard causing a ruckus over the death of the companies commanding officer. He wants justice and Celi is his target. Frank finds himself thrust into the role of high ranking officer despite being a 90 day wonder out of flight school. He quickly gives the reigns to Howard for the time being. This after he is approached by three American inmates who think Howard and the rest of the Brits are obsessed with escaping while freedom is only days away with the Allied forces closing in.
Frank’s fellow Americans are a familiar trio, Brad Dexter, James Brolin and Richard Bakalyan.
Howard’s gruff commander doesn’t sit well with Frank’s laid back “Sinatra” style. Howard lets Frank know that when escaping, “If only one gets out, it’s a victory. ”
Seeing the men are in need of medical attention, food and clothing, Frank assumes command and makes a deal with Celi that doesn’t quite go as expected prompting Howard and the Brits to jeer old blue eyes. Frank almost gets the final laugh before Celi has him condemned to the sweat box.
With the German’s in retreat the Italians abandon the P.O.W. camp which saves the condemned Frank just in time to prevent a lynching of Celi. Trevor and Frank continue to butt heads.
With over 4oo men behind enemy lines, Sinatra turns to an Italian officer who has no love for the Germans played by Sergio Fantoni to help lead the men to freedom. It’s a short trip as the men are rounded up and placed aboard a cargo train, the wounded summarily shot. When Howard discovers it’s Celi behind it all he goes sideways and lays it all at Frank’s feet, “You’ll get your Iron Cross now, “Von” Ryan! ”
The balance of the film is how Sinatra and Howard are going to take the train by force from Wolfgang Preiss and redirect it to the Swiss Alps and freedom. They’re going to have to overcome multiple obstacles thrown at them by way of director Mark Robson.
With Frank leading the actors into battle and Howard’s stern task master behind him, looking back at film’s of this period, this is plainly put “one hell of an action war time adventure.”
I stopped the synopsis at the half way point so as not to ruin any of the battles and plot points to come which does include a jaw dropping scene with Frank and the beautiful third billed Raffaella Carra. If you’ve seen the film then you’ll know what I am referring to. It’s sure to have one powerful effect on the viewers that are Sinatra fans. For the record Frank the actor plays it perfectly.
Matching up well with Sinatra on screen is the crusty Howard. Another of those British actors I love to rave on about and rarely turn down a film that he stars in. Big role or small. His snarly commander is a perfect opposite to Frank’s calm demeanor and it’s rather fun to see him give Frank the odd back handed compliment throughout.
Another factor that helps the film is that there is on occasion a bit of humor injected in to the screenplay which is bound to elicit a smile. Sergio Fantoni as the Italian who joins up with Frank should also be singled out as he contributes a likable presence to the proceedings.
Both ex-Magnificent Seven star, Brad Dexter and Richard Bakalyan also appeared in Frank’s other wartime effort released in the same year as this flick, None But the Brave which was in fact the only movie Frank was the credited director on.
Von Ryan also features a top notch set of F/X by uncredited Johnny Borgese during the battle sequences featuring train explosions and some great footage of fighter planes battling it out with our group of escaping P.O.W.’s.
For those of us interested in the faces we recall but can never name, the engineer of the train is Mr. Vito Scotti. According to IMDB he has 227 credits to his name. For me it’s his roles on Gilligan’s Island that always stood out for me growing up. He played the mad scientist and the Japanese sailor with the coke bottle glasses.
Trivia wise, apparently Frank had the ending of the screenplay changed from that of the original source novel by David Westheimer. I have never read the book but love the final fade out of Frank as Von Ryan that Robson captured on camera and the admiration and respect towards him from those that made the journey with him.
For more on the Sinatra celebrations, don’t forget to click right here and see what others have to share on the career of Frank. Thanks for stopping in to read my love in with this Sinatra title (and my lobby card) and remember that I wrote this all by myself. I did it My Way……..