Scores of lives are sacrificed to save a shipment of art in war-action thriller.
In Paris on August 2nd, 1944, the 1511th day of the German occupation of France, Col Von Waldheim (Paul Schofield), while admiring the artworks (regarded as degenerate by the Nazi high command) he has so carefully selected and collected, says to Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), in charge of the Jeu de Paume museum: “I’ve often wondered at the curious conceit that would attempt to determine tastes and ideas by decree.”
Aware of how the Nazis had burned books and other things, she expresses appreciation “for saving all of this, protecting it.” She then adds: “I know what these paintings mean to you.” He, however, surprises her by ordering everything packed into crates – canvases by Renoir, Manet, Picasso, Miro, Degas, Lautrec, Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Utrillo, among others – for shipment by train to Germany in anticipation of Paris’s liberation by the Allies within days.
At the railway yard, Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), railway-area inspector, informs Col Von Waldheim that his train has been cancelled on orders from Von Rundstedt, Western Front military commander, for an armament train: “It’s your army, not mine.”
Distressed by the news, Col Von Waldheim seeks personal authorization from Gen Lubitz, who replies: “I don’t share your enthusiasm for art. Even if I did, it would not be centered on this degenerate trash nor would I expect priority over vitally needed war transport.” Von Waldheim, persisting by pointing out the monetary value of the works, which can be used to procure increasingly scarce resources, receives permission for his train.
Mlle Villard appeals to the committee of the dwindling resistance – only three remaining from an original group of 18 – for help in stopping or delaying the train’s departure until the Allies arrive, speaking of the treasure of artworks as the national heritage: “They could never be replaced.” When Labiche dismisses the mission as too dangerous, instead suggesting just blowing up the train with plastic explosive, she protests: “This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that.”
More concerned about a principal target, the armament train, he answers: “I’m sorry, we can’t help you.” Director John Frankenheimer’s war-action thriller in which scores of lives are sacrificed to save a shipment of art, with musical score by Maurice Jarre, is based on actual events; the screenplay by Franklin Coen and Frank Davis is an adaptation from Rose Valland’s book, Le front de l’art.
Over the phone, Col Von Waldheim informs the major in Gen Lubitz’s headquarters that the train with artworks has already left the Vaires station; he then orders Schmidt to immediately get on the train for its departure with engineer Papa Boule (Michel Simon), who has told his conductor he’s “too old to be careful,” at the throttle. Labiche’s employment of a clever sabotage with the switches – a Nazi officer’s tobacco pipe causes a critical switching jam as the armored engine is brought in to replace the original locomotive for the armament train – giving time for the air raid.
Boule, nevertheless, runs his train, carrying the precious crates with “the glory of France,” safely through the bombardment on to Rive-Reine. Caught using a franc coin to cut off the locomotive’s oil supply, Boule turns on Labiche, who attempts to save the old engineer from punishment: “I know what I’m doing. Do you? You’ll help them. I practically raised you, but you’re no better than they are.”
Col Von Waldheim tells Labiche that he will be held personally responsible if the locomotive isn’t repaired by morning. Receiving the locomotive on time in Rive-Reine, Col Von Waldheim orders Labiche, without sleep for two days, along with Didont (Albert Remy) as fireman and Sgt Schwartz as guard, to run the train all the way to Germany the next day.
Given a room in a hotel owned by Christine (Jeanne Moreau), Labiche sneaks out to phone Maurice, another member of the resistance in Commercy, from the stationmaster’s office while Pesquet (Charles Millot), also a railroad man with the resistance, creates a diversion. When Col Von Waldheim discovers that the soldier left to watch the office has been killed, he has the stationmaster Jacques (Jacques Marin), who had been gagged and bound, harshly interrogated as to the identity of the assassin.
Suspecting Labiche, the Germans race back to the hotel, break down the door to his room when he doesn’t answer, only to find him calmly eating a meal in Christine’s kitchen. “How much for saving my life?” Paul asks after paying her for damage to the door.
As Labiche and Didont take the train toward Metz, Jacques contacts Maurice with a request for cheese when the next train arrives in Commercy; Didont remarks to Paul that when they arrive in Saint-Avold, the last station before crossing the border, they’ll most likely be permanently relieved of duty and their lives.
With the main tracks in Metz having been blown up during a recent air raid, as Labiche detours the train south, Sgt Schwartz questions the change in direction, to which Didont explains they’re merely going around a bend in the river. When the German sergeant sees on the water tower the expected name of the next station, his concerns are assuaged.
Back in Rive-Reine, after locomotives and cars are wrecked along with the rails torn up, the Nazis take reprisals against those involved in the destruction and deception. Believing that Labiche would not abandon the train with its cargo – even though the colonel has a low opinion of the Frenchman, whom he thinks has about as much appreciation for the paintings as an ape would have for a necklace of pearls – Von Waldheim says to Major Herren (Wolfgang Preiss): “I’m beginning to know him.”
Word from London prohibits destroying the train while setting another impossible task for the men of the resistance to paint the roofs of the first three boxcars white to mark them so that Allied planes won’t target the train. With the situation approaching a climax, Maj Herren says to his superior officer: “Labiche or the train, which do you want, Colonel?”
When a pair of French resistance men pose as German soldiers, they can’t speak to Sgt Schwartz since doing so would give away their actual identities; however, most of the time the principal characters, whether French or German, speak to one another in English, but does this indicate that they all are speaking French and German interchangeably, fluently? After Labiche is wounded by a rifle bullet, he limps slightly, running about the countryside in his efforts to prevent the train’s getting to Germany, though at the end the bleeding on his pants leg suggests a serious wound that would not have permitted such strenuous activity.
The Train is available at UW’s Coe Library and for rent at Hastings Entertainment.
Patrick is a regular contributor to Laramie Movie Scope. See many more reviews of his at: http://www.lariat.org/AtTheMovies/old/others.html