Film: The Train

There’s something about director John Frankenheimer’s output from the 1960s that speaks to my aesthetic. Add his anti-war war film The Train (1964) to that list. The premise is pretty basic: in the dying days of World War II, a Paris-based Nazi officer, Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), sees the writing on the wall and fights the high command to requisition a train. As the Allies approach and the Germans prepare to evacuate, Von Waldheim wants to save an unlikely cargo: stolen French art. A museum curator (Suzanne Flon), desperate to save the priceless paintings, reaches out to a French resistance unit led by trainyard master Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster). Labiche, whose friends have been dropping like flies, wants nothing to do with the job: his group has other problems, and the war’s almost over anyway. But circumstances conspire to put the mission back on his radar, leading to an action-packed battle of wits between ruthless Nazi occupiers and stubborn French rebels.

On paper, there’s not much to The Train, a wartime tale of reluctant, underdog heroes rising to the occasion to stick it to a powerful, evil enemy. On the surface, it’s a satisfying, suspenseful actioner, with Lancaster—an unconvincing Frenchman—making up for that with a rugged, physical performance that sees him performing many of his own stunts. But The Train’s messaging is more interesting than your usual classic war cinema, less interested in heroic, inspiring patriotism than in the circular pointlessness of armed conflict. Indeed, the French plan to secretly route the train back to its starting point—a clockwork-heist gambit carried off with skillful visual story-telling—is the perfect metaphor for the tragic wastefulness and unnecessary destruction of war. The point is hammered home powerfully in a memorable final exchange between Labiche and Von Waldheim, which lends a more thought-provoking flavor to the affair than your usual sixties war epic. Good stuff.

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