Classic Corner: The Train

Orson Welles once said that making a movie was the biggest electric train set a boy could ever have. John Frankenheimer and Burt Lancaster put that theory to the test with The Train (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video), their bruising 1964 masterpiece of kinetic choreography, for which the filmmakers rammed real locomotives into one another and used thousands of pounds of dynamite to blow up an actual French railyard. It’s a thrillingly visceral cinematic experience – the damn thing never stops moving – but also one with a questioning, philosophical soul. The Train was the last studio action extravaganza to be shot in black-and-white, and the shades of gray suit the film’s murky moral inquiries. It’s a movie about foolhardy heroes and grand, symbolic gestures, wondering aloud if art and culture are really worth dying for? And if not, what is? 

Paul Scofield stars as a Nazi officer in the waning days of the French occupation. We first see him plundering a Paris museum, loading crates full of Renoirs, Gauguins, Cezannes and Van Goghs to be shipped to the Fatherland before the Allies’ imminent arrival. The German high command has little interest in such degenerate art beyond the obvious cash value, but Scofield’s Colonel Von Waldheim fancies himself an aesthete. He’s obsessed with the paintings, to a point where he continues to fret over securing their safe passage even as there are more important matters he and his retreating army really should be worrying about instead. 

Lancaster’s Labiche has never had much time for fine art. A French railway station master and Resistance saboteur par excellence, he thinks it’s mad for a man to risk his life over a few lousy paintings, especially when the damn war is almost over, anyway. But much to Labiche’s consternation, his colleagues all rally around the cause. Hoping to rescue “the great cultural history of France,” nearly a hundred men join the scheme to delay, disrupt, reroute and generally do everything their ragtag organization can to keep Von Waldheim’s precious cargo from crossing the border into Germany. It’s inspired by a real-life story in which the French bogged down the train’s departure in bureaucratic red tape. But for the sake of a Hollywood movie, brawnier methods had to be invented. 

Still, The Train wasn’t always supposed to be this big. Original director Arthur Penn envisioned it as more of a psychological battle between Von Waldheim and Labiche. Producer-star Lancaster fired him three days into shooting, bringing in his buddy Frankenheimer to up the ante on the action. The two had recently teamed three times in as many years for The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May, but neither had ever attempted anything on the sheer scale of The Train, for which the director and his simpatico star kept improvising and adding spectacle sequences. (That whole extended bit about driving the train in a circle back to France under the Nazis’ noses was something they came up with on the set.) What was supposed to be a 14-week assignment for Frankenheimer ended up lasting a year. 

Tom Cruise before Tom Cruise, Burt Lancaster was a circus acrobat and trapeze artist who loved inserting insanely dangerous stunts for himself into his projects. The Train features some of his most astonishing physical feats, as when he shimmies down a ladder, then runs and jumps aboard a moving train in a single, unbroken shot, or an even more eye-popping gag that finds the star sliding straight down the face of a steep, mountainside cliff. Few actors ever moved with such grace, and it’s a wonder to watch the then 51-year-old star vaulting himself over fences and atop boxcars with the agility of an athlete half his age. (When Frankenheimer was displeased with how a French stuntman performed a day-player’s plummet from a roof, Lancaster suited up in the guy’s costume and took the fall himself.) 

Amusingly enough, the only injury during the entire shoot happened on the star’s day off, when Lancaster blew out his knee playing golf. Frankenheimer added a scene in which Labiche takes a bullet in the leg to justify his limp, not the first such improvisation required during this arduous, extended production. If The Train seems to have a more disposable supporting cast than one is accustomed to in films from the era, that’s because a lot of these French actors had hard stop dates for prior commitments in other projects. The director liked to joke about how whenever they ran out of time with a particular performer, he’d line ‘em up against a wall to get shot by the Nazis and assign the rest of their business to somebody else. It’s an expedient measure but also an unnerving result in the final film. Death comes swiftly in The Train, and without warning.

Because this is a Frankenheimer movie, the lenses are wide and the angles low. Objects and faces loom leviathan-like in the foregrounds while backgrounds bustle with activity. The high-speed black-and-white film stock allowed cinematographers Jean Tournier and Walter Wottiz to keep everything in focus all the way back to the horizon, and each frame is crammed with busybody extras, groaning machinery and grinding gears. Frankenheimer’s camera fluidly moves in and out of windows, always integrating interiors and exteriors to remind you that you’re not looking at something that’s been staged on a set. Even when you are.

The Train is the kind of movie that takes the time to show you how things work. You can’t really enjoy the sabotage without knowing beforehand what’s being saboteur-ed, and luckily Lancaster was one of those actors who insisted on spending weeks learning how to repair railroad bearings by himself or set a plastique explosive bomb on his own. Not for any wacky Jared Leto “Method” reasons, but rather because as a showman, he understood that the more convincingly he performed these tasks on camera, the more we in the audience would buy into the movie’s verisimilitude, especially when Frankenheimer wasn’t constantly having to cut away to a double’s hands doing all the intricate work. 

“Men want to be heroes and their widows mourn,” sighs an innkeeper played by Jeanne Moreau. The central dilemma of The Train is provocatively never resolved, leaving Scofield’s Nazi aesthete furious to find his plans foiled by these railway workers, these everyday fucking proles, who have no appreciation for the art with which he wishes to abscond. “A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape,” he hisses at Labiche, who remains unsurprisingly unmoved. The question of whether or not this was worth it is left to the audience, witnessing a pile of bodies strewn beside some of European history’s greatest masterworks. 

“When all this is over, we should probably go look at some of those paintings,” says one of Labiche’s buddies earlier in the picture. Pity he never got the chance. 

“The Train” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Back to top