' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Train (1964)

Friday, June 07, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Train (1964)

At the 2003 Oscars, the Oscars hosted just weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq on account of certain things which they did not actually possess, upon winning Best Actress, the impeccable Nicole Kidman said this: “Why are we here? Because art is important.” Truth. Now if you even chose to dismiss this as the warbling of an over-privileged member of the Hollywood gliterrati, which you should not, the elemental truth of her statement remains. Art is important. And if you still choose not to believe it, I direct you to the 1964’s “The Train.”


The two hour-plus saga opens in the waning days of WWII in an art museum in Paris which is on the verge of being reclaimed by the Allies. The scene is quiet, reflective, the camera lingering on the plethora of classic French artwork. The curator, Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), thanks a German colonel, Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), for tending to the paintings and preventing their harm in the violence of the previous years. Come again? What is this? A Nazi with a heart of a gold? Not so fast! Just as we are about to believe in him as righteously as Villard does, von Waldheim orders all the paintings boxed up and transported by train from Paris to Berlin.

And so, the silence is cut, the soundtrack clatters and clangs as the credits roll and the paintings are taken down, and we find ourselves kicked with a steel-toed boot into the action-adventure brawn of director John Frankenheimer. To what lengths will men and women go in the name of impressionism?

Villard goes to the French Resistance for help who go to the railroad inspector Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster, forgoing the French accent entirely because no one wants to watch a Burt Lancaster movie where Burt Lancaster doesn’t talk like Burt Lancaster). The Allies’ takeover is imminent. If they could simply hold up the train for a few days the paintings would be saved! Labiche says what the Kidman-bashers are thinking: “For some things we take the risk, but I won’t waste lives on paintings.” Not, that is, until his ornery engineer Papa Boule (Michel Simon), who appears to bathe and sleep in grease, who doesn’t actually say “I’m one week away from retirement” but may as well have, steers the train’s engine straight into an air raid in the hopes of purposely damaging it so much that it can’t go. But von Waldheim is wise to the scheme and orders Papa Boule executed.


This is the turning point. Labiche is portrayed very much as a man of action. Not as in a man of extraordinary derring-do, though he most certainly does do plenty of that in several thrillingly staged sequences that take full advantage of the title’s mode of transportation, but as a man defined by the choices he makes. He says “I won’t waste lives on paintings” and then proceeds to waste lives on paintings. He never says “I’m going to waste lives on paintings” but that’s what he does. He puts his own life on the line. And at a particularly delicate, dramatic moment when the movie gives him a chance to explain his actions out loud, he doesn’t. He makes another choice (not to be revealed) and walks away.

“The Train” is, in fact, based on fact, on a 1961 book, “Le front de l’art" authored by art historian Rose Valland. The real life Train never made it out of Paris on account of the Resistance keenly employing the ancient art of red tape. Now, you could make red tape delays interesting. I'd reckon Michael Mann or David Fincher could manage it with their viewfinders closed, but the late John Frankenheimer was a man of action and ACTION (!!!). So “The Train”, with an Oscar nominated script penned by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis, transforms the red tape into derailments and wrecks, requisite explosions and a bit of delightful track-switching subterfuge. Why, it even allows for an interlude of Labiche hiding out in the basement of the red-checkered curtained home of the beguiling French girl (Jeanne Moreau) who says she can’t help him but does anyway.


As visceral and entertaining as it is, however, there is a tough interior beneath the stunt-filled crust. It’s about the art, yes, but as the film progresses the art turns into so much more. It becomes a higher plain of pure that the Nazi just can’t have, try as they might, and it becomes a symbol of the Third Reich’s death rattle. Lancaster is custom-made for the part, so unwillingly willing, but the film’s most interesting performance and perhaps even part belongs to Scofield as the going-mad Nazi commander.

The art is his obsession and he rages away, changing orders, defying logic, desperate to cart it across the German border. He makes a big to-do about them being a financial windfall but his final words own up to the fact that he sees the paintings as his. That is the sort of delusion that can be glimpsed in a fellow countryman of his from ‘round about the same time. His showdown with Lancaster is devastating but so too is the showdown that precedes it – one with a nameless German officer who ignores his order to help with the cause of French art and instead tends to shepherding his own men. Von Waldheim screams at him, pulls a pistol, threatens to shoot him dead. The officer barely even registers the firearm. Shoot me, don’t shoot me, whatever, he seems to be saying, but if you’re going to, then just do it and spare me any more of this.

Why you can almost see the entirety of the waning days of the Nazi regime in that exchange.

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