Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses The Train, directed by John Frankenheimer
John Frankenheimer was always an enigmatic filmmaker. Just when you thought you knew what he was about, he would fling a cinematic monkey wrench at your assumption.
His whipsaw turns began early. As a young man, Frankenheimer stumbled into television directing then immediately established himself as a master of small stories about common people moving through everyday problems. Then, seemingly from out of nowhere, he staged a two-part live spectacular about the sinking of the Titanic. Think about that: Two-part. Live. Spectacular. Titanic. And it had to be repeated live a few weeks later.
Clearly, Frankenheimer wanted to tell more than just small stories. His film career, though, began with The Young Savages, All Fall Down and Birdman of Alcatraz, all tightly controlled films limited to restrictive locations. Then came The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, both dark (and darkly comic) thrillers set in the milieu of Washington politics. Still relatively confined, but films that showed a growing preoccupation with the ethical and moral dilemmas that occur when personal beliefs butt up against national goals. Soon, Frankenheimer would switch yet again, this time to muscular, cinematically ingenious action films like Grand Prix, The Gypsy Moths and Ronin.
The transitional film leading into this later period is his 1964 drama, The Train, available on Amazon, a high-fueled World War II action film that also encapsulates Frankenheimer’s fascination with that tension point between personal desire and civic responsibility. As such, it is fraught with ironies that constantly pull the rug out from under our feet and make us question things we never thought we would question. For example, are there really any good guys in a war? This is a movie about saboteurs that works by sabotaging the viewers as well as the eponymous train.
The Train begins with a subversion. Committed Nazi colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) walks into the Jeu de Paume. This famed Paris museum is dedicated to impressionism, an art form forbidden to Germans and declared degenerate by the Nazi powers-that-be. Von Waldheim, though, obviously adores this collection. It moves his heart. We immediately think this must be a good Nazi. He then turns to his subordinate and orders everything removed and placed on a train for his personal collection back home. Clearly, we are handed a man who possesses a soul and an intellect, yet he also has all the arrogance of his breed.
Next, we meet Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster in his fourth of five outings with this director). Labiche is a committed member of the Resistance yet when he is ordered to keep von Waldheim’s haul from leaving France he is, well, resistant. A brute of little soul, Labiche can see no reason for risking his life and the lives of his men for a bunch of pictures. As far as he is concerned, blowing up the train would send just as useful a message.
And there you have it: A German trying to save French masterpieces, and a Frenchman willing to sacrifice his nation’s patrimony so that he can defeat one German officer.
Nope, this one is no easy train ride to the land of black and white. This is high-speed lurch into a moral quagmire where no answer is easy when every question has a deadly consequence.
All of this would be interesting even without the action sequences, but these deepen the drama while being delivered with Frankenheimer’s signature punch. Each time the train starts to move, the stakes skyrocket. An Allied aerial attack on the trainyard is a textbook example of how to crosscut action to maximize impact while the ingenious geographical deceptions along the train’s route keep one guessing what stunt the Resistance will pull next.
For all intents and purposes, The Train is structured like a classic western: The slow but dogged symbol of good (Labiche) versus the evil and powerful villain (von Waldheim), all leading up to a face-off, a Gunfight at the Musée Corral. But even this interpretation is subverted by the train itself. Here, the train is taking loot away, not bringing money to the ranchers, and it is the good guys who must rob the train, not the bad guys. These constant twists do more than keep The Train from derailing. They expose once again the gifts of a great storyteller who was always at his best when piloting us to the edge of our seats.