31 Days of Oscar: THE TRAIN (1964)

I talk about how much I love The Train all the time, I watch or DVR it every time it’s on, and I really want more people to see it, but I feel like I haven’t really said why. Its premise is deceptively simple: In the waning days of World War II, French railway inspector/Resistance member Labiche (Burt Lancaster) is ordered by Nazi-in-charge von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) to get a train through to Germany no matter what. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that nearly every important piece of art left in France is on the train. Von Waldheim has ruthless soldiers at his disposal, but Labiche’s Resistance friends, some of whom actually run the trains, are used to making sabotage seem normal. It’s an unpredictable, suspenseful chess match with French lives staked against the country’s soul.


Maybe it’s so good because it’s so real. How real? Lancaster did all his own stunts. He even did stunts for another actor. He was injured only once during filming but it had nothing to do with the movie: He sprained his knee while golfing. Director John Frankenheimer covered it by having Labiche get shot in the leg.

Lancaster was actually responsible for Frankenheimer’s presence on set. After the first day of filming, Lancaster didn’t think original director Arthur Penn was emphasizing action and suspense as much as necessary. The actor, who was also producing, had Penn fired and called on his Young Savages/Birdman of Alcatraz/Seven Days in May director, who was happy to help — provided his conditions were met: the film’s official title would be “John Frankenheimer’s The Train;” he would have final cut; and he would receive a Ferrari. The producers agreed to all of it. (Don’t feel too badly for Penn…he went on to make Bonnie and Clyde.)

In addition, when you see trains crashing or derailing, they’re very real, life-sized, often WWII-era, trains — Frankenheimer didn’t use miniatures. In one scene, the production was able to take advantage of the French government’s decision to scrap a railyard by “planting dynamite charges beneath the tracks….According to Newsweek, this brief sequence incorporated 140 separate explosions, 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline” [source].

I could write another whole blog post about the filming of these scenes:

and I haven’t even mentioned Jeanne Moreau’s cameo as an innkeeper who may or may not be collaborating with the Nazis, the crazy weather delays and their effect on the film, or the real-life true story that inspired the script — Rose Valland’s autobiographical Le front de l’art: défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945.*

Furthermore, the film can be enjoyed as both a straight-up action picture and as a philosophical exploration of art and war. It asks the questions, “How much does art matter, and is it worth dying for?” and suggests that one’s answer will vary based on class. The Train’s preoccupation with social status is understated, but it reminds me of another film with an ambivalent outlook on war, La Grande Illusion. For starters, both have working-class Frenchmen, Labiche and Jean Gabin’s Lieutenant Maréchal, and aristocratic Germans, von Waldheim and Erich von Stroheim’s Captain (later Major) von Rauffenstein, though their differences are far more prominent in Illusion.

So The Train won a ton of Oscars, right? Not at all. It received one Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen — which it lost, to Darling. Neither film is really all that well-known today, but I confess I have more affection for the somber World War II movie that could.


This post is part of Week 5 of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by myself, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen and Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled. Check out past weeks’ fabulous posts as well:   Week 1   Week 2   Week 3   Week 4

* Per IMDB, paintings from the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris “were indeed loaded into a train for shipment to Germany during World War II, but fortunately, the elaborate deception seen in the movie was not really required. The train was merely routed onto a ring railway and circled around and around Paris until the Allies arrived.”

UPDATE: This post wouldn’t really be complete without Frankenheimer’s TCM tribute to Lancaster. The director talks about The Train, including the one-take scene Jack Deth referenced in his comment, here

29 thoughts on “31 Days of Oscar: THE TRAIN (1964)

  1. This remains an under appreciated film. Of the war variety or not. More people need to watch this one. Whether for the story or the stunt work, both are compelling. Fine post for a great film, Paula. Well done.

    1. Thank you, Michael, you’re very kind. I agree, I hope I convinced a few people to give it a try. The film & the making of it both fascinate me, I think a book could be written about it. Maybe someday 🙂

  2. Hi, Paula:

    Excellent choice and very well detailed critique!

    Lancaster is a favorite of mine. A Consummate athlete who did most of his own stunts well beyond ‘The Train’ and up to ‘Scorpio’ at age 60.

    I love the scene where Burt sees a train approaching from the control tower. Slides down the steel ladder. Runs and hops onto the locomotive. All done in one take!

    An all around great film that takes a while to grown on you. But once you understand what the trains are hauling. You’re solidly behind Burt and his crusade.

    1. Thanks Jack 🙂 That scene is just amazing. i just remembered it’s in Frankenheimer’s TCM tribute to Lancaster so I added it.

      I think i got like 15 minutes or so in before i was hooked completely. I also liked that I had no idea what was going to happen. It takes a lot for a movie to surprise me 😉

      1. Hi, Paula:

        You noted.

        “I also liked that I had no idea what was going to happen. It takes a lot for a movie to surprise me ;)”

        Should I mention another Frankenheimer film titled ‘Seconds’. With Rock Hudson in a very un Rock Hudson role? 😉

  3. I think The Train is coming up on TCM this week. From your review, I will march right over to my tivo machine and set it to record. I enjoy a good suspense, cat and mouse type of movie. Thanks for your informative post!

    1. You’re welcome & thank you Jenni, this definitely it that kind of movie. Unfortunately, it was on TCM early Sunday morning, I think it was 2 a.m. Eastern. But it’s available on Netflix for sure. If you do check it out, let me know what you think 🙂

  4. OH NO! je n’ai pas vu! I know! I’ll add to my “must see” list, which is now a million long, it seems.

    Enthusiastic post, Paula. I think you like THE TRAIN. 😉


  5. Watched it late for the first time on late Saturday night. So glad I lost the sleep.

  6. Your post is very timely — the other night at UCLA, Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation told me this is his favorite train movie. I’d never even heard of it! I appreciated learning more about it via your post. It’s now on my “to see” list!

    Best wishes,

  7. GREAT review Paula! After reading your write-up I was extremely surprised to learn it didn’t get a lot of nominations! Sounds like a well-crafted and well-acted piece, I definitely should check this out. I still haven’t seen any Burt Lancaster film, yeah for shame!

    1. Thanks so much Ruth 🙂 I too was surprised by the lack of nods. “Well-crafted” is a good word, this film definitely is. I hadn’t seen much of Lancaster’s work until the past year or so, but he is really becoming a favorite. He’s always interesting to watch, but this is my favorite of his.

      1. Is he the one in From Here to Eternity too? I’ve always wanted to see it as that kissing-on-the-beach scene is so iconic 😉

        1. Yep, that’s him. He’s excellent in it, as are Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Cliff, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine. It’s not the most cheerful movie ever made, but I definitely recommend it

  8. Hi, Ruth and Paula:

    “Well crafted” is a very apt description for Frankenheimer’s work on ‘The Train’. He knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted. Even if the topic of stolen art treasures may have been a bit too touchy when the film was made. The revelation of how far the RAF went out of their way to avoid destroying the train(s) in question speaks volumes.

    Also. Extremely high marks for Frankenheimer using real trains and destroying one in the process. Along with some of the best, well timed stunt work short of Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ places ‘The Train’ very high up in the firmament!

  9. One of my very favorite movies of the 1960s — Lancaster very clearly performs his own stunts, including that incredible single-shot of him sliding down the ladder and throwing switches and catching a train during the Allied bombing of the yard. Also, a big fan of Paul Scofield’s work. And the ending, with Scofield nattering on that Lancaster is an “ape with a string of pearls” while failing to comprehend that the dozens of individual works of art — men — he has just ordered executed for no reason at all are worth more than all the paintings in the world is a pretty gutsy way to end an action movie. Big fan.

    1. I am a big fan too. I agree, the ending is gutsy. Ambivalence about war is not at all easy to find in WWII movies. Thanks for your comment…I’m so glad to find other people who have seen this and like it.

  10. I love Lancaster in anything. One of my favorites is The Swimmer from 1968 that I have seen but yet to locate on DVD.

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