Monday, October 3, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Train" (1964)

For a film with a silly premise, "The Train" is a really gripping action/thriller. It's about a French Resistance member outwitting the Germans to prevent them from shipping hundreds of great paintings to Berlin in the waning days of the war. The protagonist, played by Burt Lancaster, demands early in the story why his men should risk death for a bunch of art. "The Train" never adequately answers this question.

In fact, the antagonist -- splendidly played by Paul Scofield -- articulates exactly thus in the movie's final moments. Alone, defeated, he confronts his opponent and taunts him:

"Labiche! Here's your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Do you feel a sense of excitement at just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing or why...
"Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did."

And he's exactly right. Paul Labiche (Lancaster), the Paris train station master who's secretly the ringleader of a Resistance cel, had already refused to stop the train. If any action were to be taken, he would have preferred to simply blow it up. His primary mission was to make sure another train was delayed long enough to be destroyed in an Allied air raid. Once that was accomplished, though, Labiche suddenly finds an unexplained need to keep the paintings in France.

The Allies' thinking of why exactly they should stop the paintings from leaving is fuzzy. Surely they knew the Nazis would not destroy such prized art. And by August of 1944, with the liberation of Paris days away and the German war machine in full retreat, they must have known it would only be a matter of time before Berlin fell and the paintings were reclaimed.

The reason provided by Scofield's German colonel, Franz von Waldheim, holds no more water. He convinces his recalcitrant superiors to allocate a much-needed train to the paintings' transport by arguing that they're worth a billion German marks, and could supply their fatherland with a trove of weapons and supplies for its defense.

Not likely -- exactly which nation or private enterprise would be in the market of selling massive supplies of guns and artillery to Germany, when it was clearly losing the war? Even assuming they could somehow get through the Allied lines? Col. von Waldheim's claim that the art is a commodity that can be traded like gold was doubtless a ploy to convince his bosses in the Reich. He simply wanted the paintings for himself, or the glory of his nation. He makes it clear in the same final speech:

"The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me, or a man like me."

Finally, there's the central question that goes unasked throughout the story: Why is it the Germans can locate an entire train when they're in critically short supply, but keep having to rely on French engineers to operate them? Especially when one after another turns out to be part of the Resistance? Surely there was a Franz or Hansel somewhere in the local German forces with knowledge of running a train. Or they could have even brought in a German civilian engineer.

And yet, despite all the illogic of the narrative, the film works on most every level. I credit the presence of director John Frankenheimer, who was brought in after Lancaster had original director Arthur Penn fired. Penn wanted to do a more contemplative film that would barely show any of the train stuff, but Lancaster desperately needed an action-filled hit. The studio gave Frankenheimer double the budget, final cut and (according to Wikipedia) a Ferrari to turn it into a taut thriller.

He succeeded. Although I do sort of wonder what the Penn film would've been like.

I really liked Michel Simon as Papa Boule, an ancient train engineer given the assignment of driving the art train. When he learns what is on board, he risks his life to race it out of the bombing attack. We sense that he does so based on his barroom musing that he once had a girlfriend who posed for Picasso; perhaps he thinks her portrait is among the absconded paintings.

Papa Boule has the face of a troll, and the temperament of one, too, but beneath that craggy surface beats the heart of ... well, not a poet, but someone who at least knows what poetry is.

After saving the train, he sabotages the engine by placing French franc coins in the oil line. When it is brought back to the train yard for repairs, the German major demands Papa Boule turn out his pockets, revealing the telltale oil-smudged francs. Old fool, the major says before taking the engineer away to be shot. Why didn't you simply throw them away?

"Four francs is four francs," he says, which is about the only thing you can say when you're about to be machine-gunned full of holes.

Jeanne Moreau shows up as a French tavern/hotel owner where Labiche holes up when he's on the run. She demands to be paid for every scrap of help rendered or damage sustained to her property, and spouts a lot of talk about how men are such fools to always be playing at war. As written, the role feels rote.

The action scenes hold up really well nearly five decades on. And that's because Frankenheimer crashes real steam locomotives on several occasions -- including a three-way pileup that puts any modern Jerry Bruckheimer CGI conflagration to shame. You can't fake the incredible mass of those machines, and the devastating effects when they collide.

There's also a really clever sequence where Labiche, now piloting the art train himself, tricks the German officers on board into thinking they're traveling to Germany, when in actuality they've turned around and headed back for Paris. They get a small army of station masters and collaborators to disguise the names of French towns with German ones, post guards in German uniforms, etc.

The premise of "The Train" may be silly, at least in my view, but that does not preclude it from being based on historical fact. The screenplay, by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis, was based on a non-fiction book by Rose Valland, "Le front de l'art."

In reality, though, the French Resistance stopped the train not through brave sabotage or explosive plastique, but by entangling it in bureaucratic red tape. Proving once again that in real life, desk jockeys trump action heroes every time.

3.5 stars out of four

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