When The Train was in the early stages of production, Arthur Penn was attached as its director. Alas, Penn and star Burt Lancaster had serious disagreements on what sort of film The Train should be. Penn envisioned a talky, philosophical film that just so happened to contain a handful of action sequences, while Lancaster wanted a rousing action film that just so happened to contain a bit of philosophy. The latter was fresh off an expensive box office flop (Luchino Visconti's excellent but financially disastrous The Leopard), and he knew that a meditative, dialogue-heavy war movie was unlikely to be a hit. Lancaster had Penn fired, and brought in John Frankenheimer as a replacement. “Frankenheimer is a bit of a whore, but he'll do what I want,” Lancaster said. It's easy to wonder what could have been and to bemoan The Train as yet another example of art being crushed by commerce... or rather, it would be if The Train weren't one of the great action films of the 1960s.
The film opens in 1944, during the later days of WWII. The Nazis have stolen great works of art from all over France, and all of these paintings are currently housed in a Paris museum. However, the Allies are expected arrive within a few days, and the paintings will inevitably be recaptured once that happens. Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons) is determined to keep the paintings in German hands, so he has them boxed up and placed on a train.
Desperate not to lose such important works, museum curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon, The Trial) approaches French resistance cell leader Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry) and asks him to hijack the train. Labiche is appalled by the proposal, insisting that he won't sacrifice human lives for the sake of saving a few paintings. An old conductor named Papa Boule (Michel Simon, The Passion of Joan of Arc) accepts the task instead, but his efforts to sabotage the train are quickly discovered. Papa Boule is executed, and Colonel von Waldheim demands that Labiche – who pretends to be an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator for the sake of maintaining his cover – oversee the art train's safe passage to Germany. With precious little time to lose, Labiche and his men begin sketching out a plan to save the priceless artwork aboard the train.
Frankenheimer draws a tremendous amount of suspense out of this scenario, serving up one of the most exciting train movies ever made. Every major sequence is staged with the sort of thrilling precision that Henri-Georges Clouzot brought to The Wages of Fear, and the stark black-and-white cinematography adds immeasurably to the white-knuckle tension. Frankenheimer's nuts-and-bolts filmmaking style isn't particularly flashy, but almost every single decision he makes from shot to shot feels like the right one. It helps that everything we're seeing on the screen is completely real – Frankenheimer spent more than twice the film's allotted budget, determined to ensure that everything felt authentic. “I wanted all the realism possible. There are no tricks in this film,” Frankenheimer declared. “When the trains crash together, they are real trains. There is no substitute for that kind of reality.”
The thrilling set pieces alone would make the film a satisfying experience, but the characters are richer than we expect them to be. Colonel von Waldheim is not your typical goose-stepping goon, but a genuine art enthusiast who recognizes the artistic virtue of the cultural treasures he clings to. He claims that he only cares about the paintings due to their considerable financial value, but it's clear that such claims are merely a cover for the fact that he admires quite a few works that clash with the Nazi aesthetic.
Labiche, on the other hand, couldn't care less about the artwork's cultural significance. The notion that a few paintings might be worth more than human life pisses him off – you get the sense that he might watch George Clooney's similarly-themed The Monuments Men with clenched fists. Despite the fact that he eventually accepts the task of saving the artwork, he never develops an appreciation for it. Colonel von Waldheim is well aware of this fact, and scornfully chastises his culturally ignorant foe: “A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape.” Colonel von Waldheim thinks of himself as a man with a great appreciation for art, but he regards art as a special thing for special people. In his view, it's not meant to be housed in a museum for the general public, but hoarded by the people who actually know what it means and understand how to look at it. Despite the colonel's private disagreements with certain elements of Nazi ideology, he still believes in his own supremacy – not as an Aryan, but as a man with taste.
The film moves at a quick pace, but there's a lovely, melancholy lull in its midsection in which Labiche spends some time with a hotelier named Christine (Jeanne Moreau, The Bride Wore Black), who sympathizes with Labiche's cause but chastises his recklessness. “Men want to be heroes, and their widows mourn,” she says, telling us everything we need to known about her own personal history in a single line.
Early in the film, the museum curator offers Labiche an explanation of why the paintings are important:
“Those paintings are part of France. The Germans want to take them away. They've taken our land, our food, they live in our houses, and now they're trying to take our art. This beauty, this life, born out of France, our special vision, our trust... we hold it in trust, don't you see, for everyone? This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that.”
Labiche is unconvinced, but the words seem to linger with him. What causes his change of heart? The death of Papa Boule, a simple man who shared Labiche's lack of interest in art. Papa Boule couldn't have told you why a painting was great, but he knew that they were an essential part of France's identity, and he died trying to prevent the Nazis from taking it. The art meant something to Papa Boule because it meant something to France, and it begins to mean something to Labiche because it meant something to Papa Boule. There's a compelling parallel between Lancaster's feelings on The Train and Labiche's feelings on his mission: both are cases of strong-willed men believing that art only matters to the extent that it matters to ordinary people. This is an extraordinarily powerful piece of populist filmmaking – an exciting, well-crafted, unpretentious work that cleverly presents the Nazis as literal cultural gatekeepers. Whether you're looking for a rich, though-provoking artistic experience or just a fun way to spend a couple of hours, The Train delivers. It's one of Frankenheimer's best films.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Year: 1964