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.