Come fly with Appellate Judge James A. Stewart through a classic Frank Sinatra picture.
Our review of Von Ryan's Express, published October 9th, 2001, is also available.
"Colonel Ryan, if one gets out, it's a victory."
If you've seen Ocean's Thirteen, and even if you haven't, you might be thinking about the original Ocean's Eleven. Not George Clooney's 2001 remake, but the 1960 original starring Frank Sinatra as Danny Ocean.
As the Chairman of the Board, Sinatra led his Vegas Rat Pack friends through Ocean's Eleven, Sergeants 3, and Robin and the 7 Hoods. He also presided over some chummy Vegas shows in which the banter was more important than the music. Even music from the likes of Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Throw in some comedic roles in movies like The Tender Trap and you might wonder if Sinatra could play anything other than a Pack rat. Sinatra asked for the lead in Von Ryan's Express to get away from that Rat Pack image.
Von Ryan's Express was also important to Fox, which had suffered through an expensive failure with Cleopatra. The studio even built the prison set on its Hollywood lot when it would have been cheaper to film POW camp scenes abroad to create the feeling of activity and big-scale moviemaking.
Did Sinatra and Fox succeed in upgrading their images? Von Ryan's Express (Special Edition) gives you a chance to find out, with extras to put the movie in context.
Facts of the Case
Col. Joseph L. Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is taken prisoner in Italy after his plane goes down. The pilot finds himself in a prison camp where the POWs are living with filth and half-rations because of the ill-advised escape attempts of Maj. Fincham (Trevor Howard).
When he learns that Fincham is hoarding malaria medicine for another escape attempt, Ryan pulls rank and takes his rightful position as senior POW officer. While the men—both American and British—at first think Ryan's a weak negotiator, he shows his strength when camp commander Battaglia refuses to give the men the fresh clothing sent by the Red Cross.
Ryan gets an early release from the punishment sweat box when Italy falls and the guards abandon the camp. With the help of Oriani, the camp commander's translator, Ryan and the 400 prisoners head for freedom.
It's not long before the Germans catch up with Ryan and the men, cramming them onto a freight train bound for another prison camp. When Ryan finds a way to open a hole in their train car, Fincham sees it as a way for the few men in the car to flee, but Ryan's thinking big. He wants to take over the train and deliver all of the men aboard to freedom.
While there's lots of action in Von Ryan's Express, the movie turns on Ryan's attempts to deal with or ouwwit his adversaries. The British prisoners attack their Italian captors directly and are constantly trying to escape, but from the start, Ryan shows a different way. He negotiates with camp commander Battaglia for better treatment and—when he finds that Battaglia plans to sell the Red Cross clothing on the black market—has all the men strip naked and burn their clothes in protest. Although Fincham's suspicious, Ryan works with Oriani to help the men escape to freedom. Later, Ryan concocts a plan to take over the prison train with clockwork precision.
Ryan also avoids violence whenever he can. Why does he spare Battaglia when doing so could put their plans at risk? It isn't stated, but Oriani might have had second thoughts about helping the prisoners make their way to freedom if he'd seen his helpless boss gunned down.
Frank Sinatra's Ryan can be tough when he has to—his willingness to gun someone down to save their plans provides a key dramatic moment once the train is underway—but he usually shows cunning and a keen knowledge of human nature. Sinatra's thoughtful expressions show that the wheels are always turning. He's willing to suffer the consequences of doing things his way, whether it's a night in the sweat box, his own men calling him a "bird colonel," or Fincham calling him a traitor. There's still lots of Sinatra's Rat Pack cool persona in Ryan, but he puts it to good use in building a character.
Von Ryan's Express ends with slam-bang action that must have had audiences talking back in 1965, but Ryan's brains help propel the escape until the final reel, when the Germans realize what's going on and begin pursuit. Ryan presses a timid British vicar into service as a bogus German officer to talk through scrapes. Their fake German, who talks tough with the real Nazis, then collapses in a faint once he's back with Ryan and his men, provides a lot of the comic relief.
The situation provides plenty of dramatic tension, but Trevor Howard's Fincham provides a lot more, butting heads against Ryan with his headstrong, take-action-now ways. Fincham suspects Ryan of being a traitor, and says so clearly when they realize that Ryan's leniency has led to their capture—and the execution of all the sick and injured prisoners. "You'll get your Iron Cross now, Von Ryan," Fincham says, referring to the German medal. This conflict and Fincham's slowly growing respect for Ryan, rather than action, propel Von Ryan's Express.
As with many World War II pictures, the supporting players come and go so fast it's hard to keep track without a scorecard. It's especially true here because some players from the Fox backlot didn't tag along for location shooting. I'll point out that one of the prisoners who greets Ryan is James Brolin and note that Edward Mulhare's comically played nervousness as the vicar is one of the picture's highlights.
The commentary is arranged between the music so that audiences can hear Jerry Goldsmith's score without chatter. The discussion devotes a lot of time to the score, but manages to cover the movie itself pretty well. Jon Burlingame, Lem Dobbs, and Nick Redman share their wistful nostalgia for World War II popcorn flicks as they provide the scoop on possible real-life tensions between Sinatra and Howard, as well as other aspects of Von Ryan's Express.
Other extras are kind of disappointing, because they overlap the commentary a lot. "The Music of Von Ryan's Express" is a condensed version of the movie limited to just scenes with musical accompaniment. If that interests you, you'll probably already be satisfied by the music-enhanced commentary. Best among the featurettes is the Jerry Goldsmith tribute, which features his daughter's comments and samples of his scores from The Sand Pebbles, Planet of the Apes, and others. All told, there's less than an hour of extra material. You do get lobby cards, if you're a collector.
The picture is mostly sharp and clean, though I thought I spied a couple of flecks. The European locations are shown to great effect. The sound's nothing fancy, but it lets through all the variations on a theme—a Jerry Goldsmith march that can be jaunty, humorous, tense, or mournful depending on the situation—and the ambient noise of trains, runners, and gunfire.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even if Ryan's always thinking, you shouldn't do too much of it while watching Von Ryan's Express. The commentary demonstrates this by pointing out all the coincidences and unexplained points.
There's a haunting ending, one advocated by Frank Sinatra himself, but it doesn't make Von Ryan's Express a gritty, realistic war drama. It's still a lot of fun, though.
Von Ryan's Express is a smart World War II action movie. It has the requisite blasts and fights, but wit and wits carry the day.
Not guilty. Von Ryan's Express is free to make its run for Allied territory.
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Scales of Justice
• Isolated Score Track with Commentary by Jon Burlingame, Lem Dobbs, and Nick Redman
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