This story of blocking the retreating Nazis' theft of French art became a favorite after the first time I watched it. Though if you're thinking this is an early version of The Monuments Men, I'm happy to show you where you're wrong.
The first difference about this powerful black-and-white war flick is the sound—the Michel Jarre score is used sparingly, counter-point with the rumble and screech of steam locomotives. The result is a somber tone that gives John Frankenheimer’s Train a brooding reality.
The second difference is that the main characters are all either German or French. No American parachutists, no plucky British spies—just French resisting the retreating Germans.
The third is that the characters played by Burt Lancaster, Jeanne Moreau, and Paul Scofield are sometimes upstaged by a fourth major player: the trains themselves. WWII-age locomotives were brought from all over the world to film this epic, and that realism gives a great deal of power to the role played by the trains. Frankenheimer has said of Train, “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 story is simple and gripping, with an elite-vs-everyman quality. Scofield’s Colonel von Waldheim obviously loves French art, truly appreciating its worth on all levels. Yet he “sells” taking a train full of art plunder out of Paris in advance of its liberation to his superiors in a coldly pragmatic way; art is a weapon because of its value. “Would you leave 50 million francs in Paris?” Scofield asks. He gets his train, and we see crates labeled 2 DEGAS, 5 MATISSE, 2 BRAQUE, 3 RENOIR and so on, being loaded with art.
Burt Lancaster’s French everyman, Paul Labiche, at first seems to be cooperating with the Germans. Through subtle clues, we see that Labiche is a covert resistance artist, ready to balk the Germans whenever his beloved trains are not at risk. His position as railroad operating manager gives him plenty of opportunity, especially now that the Germans are preparing to leave. To Labiche, the trainload of art is just another commodity the Germans want. Von Waldheim makes this clear in a speech near the end of the film, in which the German ubermensch philosophy takes a sneering turn into artistic elitism:
Labiche! 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!From the air raid on the train yard to the final machine-gunning beside the derailed train, the film is punctuated by reminders that there is a larger war going on. It needs that reminder, because the focus of the film tightens to the conflict between von Waldheim and Labiche. On von Waldheim’s side are the full powers of the German occupation forces, those that can be diverted to the theft of French art. Labiche can call on the wily efforts of his fellow railroaders all along the line to Berlin. He finds that even apparent collaborators, like Moreau’s hotelier character Christine (even Labiche himself) are also capable of rising to the resistance.
The movie was inspired by a non-fiction book by Rose Valland, The Art Front: Defence of the French Collections, 1939-1945. Valland was the wartime curator of the Musée du Jeu de Paume, whose character (called “Mademoiselle Villand”) appears in the opening shots of the film, played by Suzanne Flon. (And her biography by Patrick Bunker, Monuments Men: Rose Villand, was the inspiration for the film The Monuments Men.)
Train’s action, however, comes from the interaction of Lancaster and Frankenheimer. The original director, Arthur Penn, was working with a script that had the train still in the station after 90 pages. Lancaster was concerned that a second slow-moving intellectual film might be the same kind of box-office dud as The Leopard, another historical epic starring Lancaster, and asked Frankenheimer to take over from Penn.
Frankenheimer’s decision to use materiel that was going to be scrapped anyway, along with his addition of lots of action to Lancaster’s role, gives the movie a thrillingly real quality. The initial railyard air raid was filmed at Gargenville yard, outside Paris—more than 50 people needed six weeks to plant and wire all the charges, which were blown up in less than a minute. A train crash was staged in the town of Acquigny. Only one take was possible, and seven cameras were used. The filmmakers hired a train to carry their equipment from one location to another, and this is the train we see as the art train in the film.
Lancaster performed his own stunts throughout the film, and even acted as stunt man for another character, without injury. Then he took a day off during shooting to play golf when the shooting was about half completed, stepped in a hole on the links, and aggravated an old knee injury. Frankenheimer had to change the script to have Labiche shot in the leg, to explain Lancaster’s limp in the last half of the film.
Didont: With luck, no one will be hurt.
Labiche: No one’s ever hurt. Just dead.
Didont: Paul, uh, have you ever seen any of those paintings on that train?
Labiche: (shakes his head no.) I haven’t. You know, when it’s over, I think maybe we should take a look, hmm?This is a movie that also deserves a look. If you haven’t seen it, don’t expect the stereotypical jaw-gritting, over-the-top Lancaster. This is an allegory in steam, from a time when the French resisted evil.