The Train, a 1964 Second World War movie, is based on an interesting premise: are great works of art more valuable than human life?
Directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster, The Train is an ‘industrial’ movie in that sweat and coal dust are never far from the actors’ faces. It’s also a stirring action movie with a number of dramatic, explosive scenes.
It’s August 1944 and with the Allies closing in on Paris, the Nazis decided to transport, by train, the great art treasures of France to Germany. In the movie, the main protagonists are Paul Labiche, a railwayman and Resistance member, played by Burt Lancaster, and art lover Colonel Franz von Waldheim, played by Paul Scofield.
Given that the Allies are approaching, the Resistance only need to delay the train by a few days, while protecting its priceless cargo. Although initially reluctant to participate in the plan, Labiche devises an elaborate plan where, instead of travelling in a straight line to Germany, the train travels in a circle. In all aspects, the movie is gritty and realistic. However, this concept does require a suspension of disbelief because the Nazis never suspect that the train is taking a circuitous route.
One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie is a train crash. This was filmed for real. However, the stuntman pulled the throttle back too far and the train travelled too fast, demolishing a dozen cameras en route. This left just one camera, buried in the ground, to capture the action, which it did to stunning effect, the wrecked train coming to rest above its all-seeing lens.
Due to a number of complex sequences, the movie overran it’s production schedule. Many of the French character actors in the film were committed to other projects. Therefore, director John Frankenheimer came up with a simple solution. As Resistance fighters, they were placed against a wall and shot by the Nazis. Historically correct, this explained their absence from the closing scenes of the film.
An agile performer, Burt Lancaster performed his own stunts. These included jumping on to a fast moving train and, later, being pushed off a fast moving train. He escaped without injury. However, on a rest day he played golf and badly damaged his knee. John Frankenheimer needed a reason to explain Lancaster’s limp, so he included a new scene in which the Nazis shoot Lancaster in the knee as he makes his escape thus allowing the production to continue without further delay.
With filming complete, John Frankenheimer showed The Train to the production company, United Artists. They realised that the movie required another action scene. Therefore, Frankenheimer reassembled the cast for a dramatic Spitfire attack scene, a highlight of the movie.
At Lancaster’s suggestion, Frankenheimer also added a philosophical/romantic scene, which Lancaster largely wrote. This scene featured Lancaster and Jeanne Moreau, and is another highlight of the movie.
Throughout the film, John Frankenheimer juxtaposed the value of art with the value of human life. A brief montage at the close of the movie intercuts the crates full of paintings with the bloodied bodies of the hostages, shot by the Nazis, before a final scene shows Lancaster as Labiche limping away.