Judge Jason Panella will walk from here, thanks.
One man's impossible mission—to save his country's priceless treasures!
"Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it."
Facts of the Case
Mere days before the liberation of Paris in 1944, Wehrmacht Colonel Franz von Walheim (Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons) orders his men to load scores of crates onto a train headed back to Germany. The cargo: hundreds of paintings stolen from France. Dozens of Van Goghs, Manets, and Picassos, to name a few artists. A priceless collection, naturally, but von Walhaim isn't in this for the money. He's in it for the art itself.
French railman Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster, From Here to Eternity) is ordered to make sure the train doesn't fall into Allied hands. Labiche is part of the French Resistance, though, and plans to do everything in his power to make sure the train and its cargo never leave his country.
Let's not mince words: The Train is awesome. Over the past few years, I've become pretty picky when it comes to action movies—sure, your flick might have awesome fight scenes or great practical effects, but if there's no soul in the machine I'm gone. I hope some filmmakers give The Train a spin and take notes. It's a gutsy, relentless war thriller that doesn't treat its audience like simpletons, nor does it let the moral quandaries it poses upon its protagonist bog down the sweet action.
The Train is based quite loosely on some events French art historian Rose Villand recounts in her non-fiction book Le front de l'art. Director Arthur Penn (Little Big Man) was initially hired to bring the story of art stolen by the Third Reich to life, but—after the director's initial pre-production work—Lancaster had him booted from the project in favor of John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate). Frankenheimer had the original script jazzed up a bit, which turned Penn's initial low-key vision into a stellar action film (and doubled the budget in the process). I admire Penn as a director, but I'm trying to imagine a world where Frankenheimer didn't direct The Train—I wouldn't want to live in that world.
This is a simple movie. There's a train with valuable cargo. The Germans and French both want it. Labiche goes to great lengths to make sure one side gets it with as few casualties as possible. Frankenheimer gets a lot of mileage out of this simplicity, using the momentum of the action to generate some of the meatier character development and ethical dilemmas. But while there's this simplicity, the heart of The Train is this question: is a nation's cultural heritage worth dying for? I love that the movie asks the audience to wrestle with the question as Labiche searches for an answer as well, and Frankenheimer isn't exactly quick to have the film give an answer either.
In his efforts to make this as "real" as possible, Frankenheimer filmed The Train on location in France. He used real trains for the action sequences, including one ridiculously impressive scene that destroyed a number of cameras (you'll know the scene when you see it). There's an authenticity (or even fetishization) in these train scenes, not unlike something you'd see in a Jean-Pierre Melville or Michael Mann film. The director also filled the production with some great French talent, including actress Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim), character actor great Michel Simon (Port of Shadows) and cinematographers Jean Tournier (Moonraker) and Walter Wottitz (Army of Shadows).
For a movie that clocks in at over two hours, The Train feels surprisingly short. I think that's because Frankenheimer keeps things moving, including Lancaster. The actor's physical prowess is front and center; without any need for stunt doubles, Lancaster slides down ladders, tumbles off of cliffs, gets shoved off of moving trains. Frankenheimer is a whiz at capturing this stuff—there are some impressively kinetic shots, including a handful of long takes that help ratchet up the tension. Wottitz and Tournier's cinematography looks lovely on top of everything; this is a fine-looking film. The only knock against The Train is that it's a tad too long, with some of the obsessively detailed locomotive scenes bordering on train porn.
Twilight Time's release of The Train (Blu-ray) is limited to 3,000 copies. This is a sharp high definition product. The 1.66:1/1080p transfer looks magnificent, with sharp detail and a fine dusting of natural film grain. There's an impressive amount of clarity in the image, especially for some of the scenes outdoors. The only real problem I noticed is that the blacks aren't as inky or rich as desired. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is clear and robust, with dialogue, score, and sound effects dancing without stepping on each other's toes. There aren't many extras, but the ones here are good: a four-page essay from Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo; the original trailer for the film (4:23); an isolated score track (in DTS-HD MA 2.0); a commentary with John Frankenheimer, which originally appeared on the 1999 DVD release of the film; and a new commentary with Julie Kirgo, editor Paul Seydor, and director Nick Redman (Becoming John Ford).
The Train is now my gold standard for badass WWII thrillers. Twilight Time does an excellent job with this limited high definition release, even if it's a bit skimpy in the extra department.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
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