The last great action movie to be made in black-and-white, The Train is an intense, fast-paced war film with some very poignant things to say about the value of human life.
The setting is France in August, 1944. The Allies are advancing on Paris and the Germans are preparing to withdraw without defending the city. Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) argues with his superiors that French art treasures are a potential source of finance for the decaying Third Reich and should be removed to Germany and then sold. Reluctantly, he is given permission to put the art on a special train.
A railway inspector, Labiche (Burt Lancaster), who is also the leader of a Resistance cell, is approached to prevent the train leaving. He refuses, as he does not consider it a priority job. He has no choice, however, in delaying a German armoured train by ten minutes so it will be caught in an air-raid. The art train is to be driven by veteran engineer ‘Papa’ Boule (Michel Simon). When Boule learns the nature of his cargo, he decides to save ‘the glory of France’. When the air-raid commences Boule drives straight through the bombs and destruction, but his engine ‘breaks down’ just outside Paris. Sending his fireman to say he will return to the repair shop, Boule unfastens an oil cap and removes the coins he used to sabotage his engine. Back at the sheds, a German officer recognises the old trick and Boule is immediately executed.
Under pressure from his two Resistance comrades, Labiche finally agrees to stop the art train. Working all night to repair Boule’s locomotive, they set out to rejoin the art train by daylight. Fired on by an allied Spitfire, they are forced to take cover in a tunnel before reaching their destination (inspired by the story of a British train which took cover in the River Severn tunnel following an attack on its way into Wales during the war). The local stationmaster (Jacques Marin) helps Labiche to make arrangements for the art train. Suspicious of Labiche, von Waldheim orders him to drive the train under supervision of a German sergeant. The art train moves off into the night. Under cover of darkness it is re-routed away from Germany, travelling in a huge circle. Stations are disguised with false names so the Germans think they are simply heading eastwards. Arriving back where they started, Labiche stages a spectacular crash. Many hostages are executed.
Labiche has not reckoned with von Waldheim’s by now fanatical determination to get the art to Germany (it is an open question whether, in fact, he just wants the art for himself). The Free French government in London has also given orders the train cannot simply be destroyed and that three trucks must be painted white to prevent attacks from the air. Painting the roofs of the trucks costs more lives. Realising the white paint is his “passport to Germany”, von Waldheim sets out again.
Now single-handed, Labiche is equally fanatic in his determination to stop him. Blowing up the track only holds up the train a little while, (hostages riding on the locomotive stop Labiche from using explosives under the train itself). Labiche is reduced to using his bare hands to dismantle a length of track. Coming round a curve, the train derails and is stopped for good. The hostages are murdered and the German troops from the train catch a lift from an army convoy on a nearby road, but von Waldheim stays behind with his paintings. Confronted by Labiche he insists the art is truly his, he is a man of culture while Labiche is just a “lump of flesh”. Labiche kills him and walks slowly away from the train.
The first thing to note about The Train is that it was based on a true incident of World War II. The Resistance did prevent the Germans from removing art works from Paris, but only by shunting it from one railway yard to another until the Allies arrived. The film opens this out for greater spectacle.
Sheer physical realism sets The Train apart from the great majority of war films. The railway yards and repair shops all have the feel of being real workplaces. With full co-operation from the French Railways this is not surprising. In the case of the massive air raid on the railway yards at Vaires, it was a case of ‘you scratch my back’. The yard was due to be demolished and the film crew carried out the demolition at no cost to the French taxpayer – no models, no tricks, just tons of explosives. Similarly, the crash staged by Labiche was done for real. Local buildings had to be reinforced to stand the blast from the collision. At a more personal level, physical realism came at a price. Burt Lancaster injured himself and the script was re-written so he could be shot in the leg – that explained his limp. He also performed Labiche’s roll down a long hillside himself, being filmed by several cameras on the way down.
The performances in the film are generally good, but there are some problems with language and accent. Lancaster and Scofield play well together, and their increasing antagonism is well-developed. Lancaster, however, plays with his usual American accent. It is probably just as well he did not attempt French, but this meant the French supporting actors had to be dubbed with American accents. Jacques Marin, however, speaks in his natural voice, so the dubbing was not consistent.
Dubbing takes some of the edge off the performances, although Michel Simon manages to be affecting as Boule, a gruff man with a good heart who is too unsophisticated to be a good saboteur. Some scenes showing a closer father/son relationship with Labiche were cut, while both Lancaster and Simon insisted on learning to drive a locomotive, just to 'add to the realism' of their performances. Wolfgang Preiss does a solid job as a German engineer officer, and does one of the bravest things I think I have ever seen an actor do in any film, walking slowly alongside a locomotive as it comes off the tracks a few feet away from him.
Production of the film was troubled. Shooting began under Arthur Penn, who envisaged a more intimate story than a war spectacular. Dissatisfied with this approach, producer Lancaster fired Penn and asked Frankenheimer to take over. The project suddenly grew, needing twice the original budget, and shooting was halted for six months for a complete script re-write. Under French rules a French co-director also had to be employed – Frankenheimer had it written unto his contract that the man never set foot on set. Noteworthy examples of Frankenheimer’s work are long takes involving very complex action, particularly von Waldheim’s arrival at a chaotic soon-to-be-abandoned German HQ, Burt Lancaster’s leisurely walk across a railway yard buzzing with activity, and his repair of a locomotive connecting rod – that really is Lancaster pouring molten metal, filing it down, and taking it to be fitted to the engine.
The end result was worth the time, effort and Burt Lancaster’s hamstring. Set pieces such as the air-raid sequence are superb. ‘Papa’ Boule driving on amid the destruction: “You can’t drive through an air raid!” “Watch me. Fire up that engine!” is exhilarating. The film is also helped along by a very energetic and appropriately French score by Maurice Jarre.
Despite the spectacle, The Train still finds time to present serious reflections on the nature of war: “No-one’s ever hurt. Only dead,” says Lancaster at one point; and the value of human life versus art and culture, emphasised in the final shots of abandoned crates cut against the bodies of murdered hostages.