Directed by John Frankenheimer
USA/France/Italy, 133 Minutes
Starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau
John Frankenheimer’s The Train is probably one of the strangest action films I have ever seen. The film is about a Nazi officer (Scofield) whose hidden love of art forces him to raid a museum and put the painting on a train headed for Germany. The museum curator begs for the help of Labiche (Lancaster), a railway inspector, and his friends. Initially, they are apprehensive. Labiche and his fellow engineers give a stirring speech questioning the importance of retrieving art when they had just lost a friend that morning. “We won’t waste lives on paintings.” Reluctantly, they decide to give in. The last straw is Labiche seeing his mentor, Boule (Michel Simon), executed for trying to stop the train himself.
The reason why it felt so strange to me is, not only is there actually very little action – there is no climactic fight-to-the-death, but the actual occupation of our hero. Labiche is just a train inspector thrown into this horrific sequence of events. Lancaster is perfect in this part. His building-up confrontation with Colonel Waldheim (Scofield) is worn on his face the entire time and comes to a dramatic head at the very end of the film.
Today’s audience might not even think of it as an action film, which is sad. Today, action films are filled with constant explosions, curse words (the worst word in this film comes when Lancaster flats out says “You bastard”) and there is never a scene where the hero is hanging on the side of cliff hanging for dear life. The Train is paced just like a train – slow at some points, but quick most of the time – and it just causes 133 minutes to melt away.
Frankenheimer was also such a unique director. This is only the second film of his I’ve seen, after the incredible The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and he had such a great style. It is a true shame that he is not talked about more today.
If you want to see this film, which you should, you can actually see it now at Hulu for free. MGM has a bunch of titles up and this is probably the best. For your convenience, here it is: