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THE TRAIN (1964)
Set in the midst of WWII, 1944, a German officer hijacks a lengthy list of priceless modern paintings to be put on 'a train' and removed from France before its liberation by the Allied Forces. After vainly attempting to employ a French railway official's help, a sudden turn of events provokes his interference as he attempts to stop the train all the while avoiding vengeful Nazi's, hoping to buy enough time for the Allied Forces to intervene.
Written by: Rose Villard (book), and Franklin Coen (screenplay).
Directed by: John Frankenheimer.
Genre: Drama, War, Action, Thriller.
Tagline: It was stolen. It was French.
Set in 1944, it’s WWII and it’s the one-thousand-and-some-odd day of Nazi control over France. While France desperately awaits liberation via the Allied forces, more sinister, aesthetic plots unfold…Modernism is on the rise, particularly as an art form, and the Nazi regime has decided that all such aesthetics are “degenerated” and to be ostracized from society, much like their occult book-burning, and other such social and cultural paraphernalia vandalizing rituals.
Colonel Oberst von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has decided, against his better judgment and the desires of the infamous Musee du Jeu de Paume’s curator, Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), to take hundreds of priceless modern paintings out of Paris before the arrival of the Allied Forces. Such paintings that are being “hijacked” carry with them the renowned names of artists like Gaugin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, Miro, Braque, Degas, Braque, Suerat, and Utrillo. A huge financial and cultural loss is at stake for France!
Able to convince his German superiors to allow him access to ‘the train’, Waldheim proceeds with the hijacking of the paintings from the Musee du Jeu de Paume as his fellow Germans carefully pack, crate, and stencil the priceless crates and load them onto a train headed out of France. Horrified, Mademoiselle contacts French officials and, with some help of museum officials, they implore French railway officer Labiche (Burt Lancaster) to stop the train’s departing France and recapture the paintings; saving the great vision and work of modern art, and by right, France’s reputation as supreme art curator.
But Labiche is at first completely resistant, and then hesitant to intervene. He simply is unwilling to risk the life of his fellow people for the sake of art (obviously there are class implications and value judgments being made on both art and the people who have yet come to appreciate its social and aesthetic significance and “value”). Still, when Labiche’s longtime friend Papa Boule (Michel Simon) is accused for sabotaging the train’s engine and then murdered by the Germans, Labiche finally concedes and agrees to avenge Boule’s death by helping Mademoiselle Villard’s “cultural cause”. Working against the Germans, Labiche will have to do his best to play “double agent”, dodging German bullets, playing Sherlock and Superman, and pulling ruses on the most notorious of German officials as he attempts to delay the departure of “the infamous train” until the expected Allied forces arrive…
Based on a true story, Mlle. Villard’s character is the fictional representation of the authentic Musée du Jeu de Paume curator Rose Valland. “The Train” is the inspired product of her 1960 non-fiction novel “Le front de l'art: défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945” (The Art Front: Defense of the French Collections, 1939-1945). Frankenheimer’s take on “The Train”, on Valland’s story, is a powerfully visual arresting of the senses. Modernism in all its fanfare is exposed as utterly significant via the medium of paintings which become the primary object of rescue in this politically subversive film that captures war-laden Europe during WWII and the time of the Nazi regime.
Initially Arthur Penn was to direct the film. However, providing more of an emphasis on the ethical issues of the paintings rather than the modernistic implications and operations of the train (the other main “modern object” of the film), Lancaster himself pushed for his replacement by Frankenheimer who would provide the more “mechanical” lens Burt coveted in his vision of “The Train”.
Likewise, rumor has it that Lancaster wanted to imbibe “The Train” with that infamous word: action. Firmly believing that turning “The Train” into an action-flick would produce huge profits, Lancaster encouraged Frankenheimer to overload the film with stunts, action sequences, etc., and as such, the film is as much a trademark action film for its time as it is a tour de force exploitation of the cultural implications of both modernism and war. For Frankenheimer, he acquiesced to Lancaster’s requests pending they produced realism: “I wanted all the realism possible. There are no tricks in this film. When trains crash together, they are real trains. There is no substitute for that kind of reality.” The end result is a realistic, powerful, black-&-white action/drama that explores the heightened tension of a German-occupied France and the cultural stakes of the era of modernism and its great productions, both mechanical (the train) and artistic (the paintings) alike. Still, Frankenheimer and Lancaster’s action-packed “mechanical vision” doubled the budget by the time of completion; namely as a result of the train-wreck sequences. “The Train” would be shot in only 7 weeks at a contemporarily staggering price of $6.7 million.
Some critics have hailed “The Train” as iconic and of superior quality and magnitude: “for me, this is not just one of the finest movies, but is also one of the finest works of art in existence”. Though many critics concede that the film falls short of depicting the true horror of wars, as a “war film”, still, if one looks at the narrative shift of the lens from war to cultural one can easily appreciate the aesthetic implications of “The Train” and its subversive dealings of culture, war, and the notorious Nazi regime from a historical perspective and pre-conditioned non-fiction narrative. As one critic notes, “the battle that takes place is not about the dominance of armies, the brutality of soldiers or the heroism of combat. This is a struggle about the nature of Art - or even: Nature V. Art.” Is it the paintings or the train itself that represents the highest forms of ideals of the modern era and/or do the paintings surpass the train in idyllic function? It is motion or aestheticization that prevails? These are important questions that, despite Lancaster and Frankenheimer’s action-mechanical emphasis, can not be disguised nor denied as both fundamentally important and compelling aspects of the film’s argument. Even those without an academic background in Modern culture, lit, art, etc., do not fail to see the implication of the binary of modernism as art and machine. This film imbibes commonplace archetypes: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. himself, man vs. machine, man vs. art, but it puts a contemporized and culturally influenced and historically real twist on them that makes these archetypes all the more compelling and palatable to witness in their unfolding onscreen.
As one critic also notes of the film’s thematic intent: “the anonymous, distant authorities in London, and the cold, calculating German officer, Col. von Waldheim, who use and abuse the lives of the French in order to keep control of the Art seem to desire something different to the French resistance who are prepared to struggle, suffer and sacrifice their lives for an ideal which sums up a ‘vision of life, born out of France ... our pride, what we create’”. “The Train” is in a sense, meta-art, it’s art about art. Moreover its art about the art of man, machine, and art itself. This film is the uber Art in a vision about the potentialities of art as both mechanic and aesthetic. This film is a timeless classic that offers a great historical lens into an important moment in not just war history or French history, but in Art history, and the history of man’s evolution from the barbaric to the cultured. It is as much palatable as an action-flick as an aesthetic and politically subversive production. It is the embodiment of the modern-era and bespeaks of the power, potential, and influence of the products begot in that time. Everything we are, do, and see now is a by-product of that great era which Rose Valland, Mlle. Villard, and Lancaster-Labiche desperately struggled to save.
“The Train’s” cinematography is, one might argue, more compelling than its score. The score is typical of the action genre and familiar in tonal shift and scope. Still, its solid enough. However it’s the image, appropriate enough for its modern lens, which is important in “The Train”: “Shot in gritty, living black and white with a stunning depth of texture”, this film gains its power, its force from the canvas of the film-reel that produces its textured, aesthetically “realistic” vision. This film is a landmark, and should be treated as such. One only hopes that it offers something for today’s society. One would like to believe it can and it does.
“The Train” was nominated for the 1966 Oscar for Best Writing (Franklin Coen and Frank Davis). Additionally the film won the 2nd place Golden Laurel Award for Best Action Performance (Burt Lancaster) and received a BAFTA nomination for Best Film.
Labiche: We started with eighteen. Like your paintings, mademoiselle, we couldn't replace them. For certain things we take the risk, but I won't waste lives on paintings.
Miss Villard: They wouldn't be wasted! Excuse me; I know that's a terrible thing to say. But those paintings are part of France. The Germans want to take them away. They've taken our land, our food, they live in our houses, and now they're trying to take our art. This beauty, this vision of life born out of France, our special vision, our trust... we hold it in trust, don't you see, for everyone? This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that.
Labiche: To hell with London! We started this whole thing for one reason: to stop the train, because the Allies were going to be here! Well, where are they? Every day they've been due, and every day a man has been killed for thinking they were just over the next hill. I say to hell with them…
Colonel von Waldheim: All von Runstedt can lose is men. This train is more valuable.
Colonel von Waldheim: Here's your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Give you a sense of excitement in 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. You are nothing, Labiche -- a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine; they always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it! They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did.
Colonel von Waldheim: A book is worth a few francs; we Germans can afford to destroy those. We all may not appreciate artistic merit, but cash value is another matter.
Miss Villard: But no place is as safe as Paris!
Christine: You talk about the war. I talk about what it costs!
Christine: Men want to be heroes, and their widows mourn.
Burt Lancaster plays Paul Labiche, the French hero.
Paul Scofield plays Col. Von Waldheim, the nefarious “degenerated” Nazi.
Suzanne Flon plays Mademoiselle Villard, the art patroness.
Jeanne Moreau plays Christine, Labiche’s “lifesaver”.
Michel Simon plays Papa Boule, the fated Engineer.
Wolfgang Preiss plays Maj. Herren.
Charles Millot plays Pesquet, the Engineer.
Albert Remy plays Didont, the Fireman.
Richard Munch plays General Von Libitz.
Jean Bouchad plays Captain Schmidt.