Monday, October 14, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Von Ryan's Express" (1965)

There are many different variations of the World War II film -- the submarine adventure, the combat pilot thriller, the romance-amidst-the-horror drama. One of the most enduring sub-genres is prison movies.

Some of these dealt with life inside the prison/concentration camp ("Stalag 17") while others focused on escape attempts by daring Allied P.O.W.s ("The Great Escape"). Some of these movies combined a bit of each, including the grand poo-bah of WWII prison movies, "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"Von Ryan's Express" starts out as a prison movie and morphs into an escape movie, and does neither particularly well. It was one of Frank Sinatra's most commercially successful films, a great rousing war adventure that culminates in a spectacular action sequence where prisoners fleeing on a train are pursued by fighter planes and German soldiers.

Sinatra plays the title character, Joseph Ryan, an American pilot who's shot down in Italy during the waning days of the war. Taken to the nearest P.O.W. camp, he finds the prisoners in a state of near revolt, whipped up by the acting C.O., Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). It seems the old C.O. just died after being locked in a hot box by the haughty Italian commander (Adolpho Celi).

As a colonel, Ryan finds himself the ranking officer. At first he is reluctant to take up the mantle of leadership. But his clashes with Fincham escalate as he has organized the entire camp around attempting to escape or defying their captors. Ryan rationalizes that the war is nearly over -- American troops have already landed in Italy and are pushing north. If they just wait a few weeks, they'll be rescued peacefully.

When two of the handful of American G.I.'s -- Brad Dexter and James Brolin -- get in trouble for stealing medicine Fincham had set aside for escapes, Ryan takes over. He even leads the Italians to the tunnel the Brits had been digging, in exchange for the clothes, showers and first aid packages the prisoners had been denied.

This leads Fincham to start referring to Ryan as Von Ryan, dubbing him a collaborator who will earn the Iron Cross for assisting the enemy so well.

I think the film would've done better if the had made the Ryan/Fincham the central conflict of the entire story. Instead their rivalry exists in the background, occasionally heating up as events transpire.

The odd thing is, Fincham is portrayed as being the deranged one, burning with a mad lust for revenge -- "justice" he calls it -- against their enemies. But in every occasion where the two men disagree over strategy, Fincham makes the right call while Ryan's decisions end up costing lives.

For example, when Italy surrenders and their prisoners flee, Fincham wants to try and execute the prison commander as a war criminal, which Ryan refuses, putting him into the hot box instead. Later the man is rescued by the Germans and leads them right to the prisoners, who are all killed or recaptured.

Later, they are put on a train heading deeper into Nazi-controlled territory. The prisoners eventually take over, killing all the German guards except for the officer and his Italian mistress (Wolfgang Preiss and Raffaella CarrĂ ). Once they reach a point of no return and their captives become expendable, Fincham wants to do away with them. Ryan against refuses, and they later escape, kill a British lieutenant and imperil the entire group.

In this context, Ryan's acts are the humane option while Fincham would become the very thing he holds in contempt. But nice guys come in last here, and Ryan's leniency comes back to bite him every time.

After the German train officer and his mistress escape, Ryan himself is forced to gun them both down lest they are given away. Shooting an unarmed woman in the back is a pretty ballsy scene for 1965, and director Mark Robson milks it for every ounce.

I noticed throughout the movie that he rarely gives his stars close-ups, preferring medium shots where they interact together. According to the film's Wikipedia page, Robson and Sinatra clashed throughout the production -- so perhaps this was his way of paying his petulant star back. It certainly isn't one of Sinatra's better performances, seeming almost stiff at times.

Once the story gets rolling along the train tracks it has a certain amount of momentum, with the Allies staging an elaborate con job to convince all the enemies along the line that their German captors are still in charge. The highlight is the mild-mannered vicar (Edward Mulhare), the only one who speaks fluent German, being forced to impersonate an imperious Nazi. He succeeds, but then faints from the stress.

I couldn't get terribly engaged with "Von Ryan's Express." The movie feels distant and impersonal, a humdrum war adventure where nothing much is at stake.

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