Closely-observed trains….

Been re-watching a few venerable  ‘train’ movies of late  – I began with J. Lee Thompson’s  ‘Northwest Frontier’  from 1959, a movie I recall being taken to see at the cinema by my folks when it first came out.  This period piece  is set in 1905 and stars Kenneth More as the plucky Army officer trying to smuggle a Hindu Maharajah’s son & heir past a blockade of (revolting) Muslim tribesmen to safety. 

To do so, he has to use a superannuated old engine with I.S. Johar as its stereotypically garrulous Indian driver who mangles the English language with gusto but is generally a ‘good sort.’  Less of a ‘good sort’ is Herbert Lom, who plays a  shifty, truculent Indonesian journalist, who, of course, turns out to be a Muslim.  Lauren Bacall plays the young heir’s American governess.  She injects a little proto-feminist New World feistiness into proceedings, though she still falls for Our Ken in the end.  Wilfred Hyde-White does his usual charming turn as a typical colonial gent.  This was the movie that cemented Thompson’s reputation as a director and was probably instrumental in him landing the job of directing ‘The Guns of Navarone’  2 years later.

Depicting Muslim hordes as baddies is probably something that only the ‘Team America’ guys would risk these days, but ‘Northwest Frontier’  was made at a time when the Indian sub-continent and its complex politics did not seem as inherently dangerous as they do today.  The patrician attitudes of the Raj still held sway when this movie was made and the expectation was that the two factions would soon settle their differences and slip into a life of tiffin and cricket matches.  Not sure what happened to that one.

Next on the timetable was John Frankenheimer’s 1964 movie ‘The Train’ starring Paul Scofield as an art-loving Nazi officer trying to run back to the Third Reich with hundreds of paintings from French museums as the Allies close in on Paris in 1944.  Burt Lancaster plays Labiche, a SNCF desptacher and clearly a Casey Jones type who’s been kicked upstairs to an executive role.  The French Resistance recruit him to confound Scofield’s attempts to get a train full of paintings out of France and he soon takes a hands-on role that sees him back on the footplate and exchanging bureaucracy for patriotism


Despite the poster above, ‘The Train’ is actually filmed in a gritty black & white which owes more to the French ‘nouvelle vague’ directors than it does to Hollywood.  The action sequences are impressive and realistic even today – apparently in the climactic crash sequence near the end of the movie, a number of cameras were destroyed by flying bits of machinery.

Apparently, the original director on the picture was Arthur Penn, but Lancaster didn’t find him as pliable as Frankenheimer.  Even so, the ‘cinema verite’  feel of the black & white footage makes for an impressive film overall with Lancaster in prime ‘man of action’ mode and Scofield doing a passable take on the twitchy, neurotic Wehrmacht careerist who clearly loves art a lot more than he loves Hitler.

The final movie in the sequence is  ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ (1965).  Frank Sinatra stars as Colonel Ryan, an American pilot shot down over southern Italy, again towards the end of the war.  He is taken to a prison camp where the overwhelming majority of the inmates are British, led by Trevor Howard as the  grouchy and unco-operative Fincham, who is at loggerheads with the camp authorities.   (Colonel) Sinatra outranks (Major) Howard and immediately orders a more conciliatory approach to the Italian captors in order to get the men much- needed Red Cross parcels. This leads to him being dubbed ‘Von Ryan’ but, of course, he shows his true colours in the end.  Ryan orchestrates a mass prison break but the escapees are recaptured and put aboard freight cars headed north to Germany.  The main dramatic thrust of the movie is about how the prisoners take over the train and bypass German bureaucracy to re-route it into neutral Switzerland and safety. 

This is the kind of war movie that used to drive my father mad – and probably still does.  It stems from a time when for a British war film to get a run at the American market, it was necessary to cast an American actor in the lead role – the theory being that American audiences simply wouldn’t turn out for a British movie with British leads.  Even David Lean, the eminence grise of post-war English directors,  had to play this game when casting William Holden in ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’.   In some ways, this policy continued unabated until the James Bond movies with Sean Connery began to change perceptions among American cinemagoers. 

For my Dad, who had fought in the war for 4 years without too much obvious help from Americans, the notion that all a group of British POW’s needed to galvanise them was a wiseguy USAF colonel was almost too much to bear.  Similarly, the post -war realities of Britain’s abdication as World Policeman and America’s assumption of that role were hard for my Dad and some of his generation to accept.  So, in a way, I suppose that ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ is a nice little model of life post-Hiroshima, but then again, I would doubt that director Mark Robson intended it to be anything other than another exciting war movie.


Sergio Fantoni , Francis Albert and Adolfo Celi in an early scene from ‘Von Ryan’s Express’

Whatever the merits of these films as narratives of war or courage or any other ‘grand themes’, one thing common to all of them is the use of real trains, tunnels and bridges rather than models.  In a nice coincidence of art and politics, the freight yard destroyed in ‘The Train’ by an alleged Allied bombing raid was due for demolition by SNCF but they could not afford to do it.  Enter United Artists with a lot of explosives and the problem is solved.  This  emphasis on realism adds enormously to the credibility of the films.  In point of fact,  some of the exteriors for both ‘Northwest Frontier’ and  parts of ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ were filmed in Andalucia, which does OK doubling for the foothills of the Alps but less well as the Northwest Frontier and the Punjab.

I really ought to conclude this train movie binge by having another look at the original version of ‘The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3’ with the peerless Walter Matthau…another time, maybe.


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