The Train (1964)

John Frankenheimer

In 1944, a German colonel loads a train with French art treasures to send to Germany. The Resistance must stop it without damaging the cargo.


Nom. for 1 Oscar - original screenplay.


PG for some violence.



John Frankenheimer’s The Train is a classic and beloved action-adventure picture of the 1960s. Until today, it still holds up as a remarkable piece of action filmmaking. Set in the final days of WWII and staring Burt Lancaster as Labiche, a resistance fighter called upon with reluctance to stop a train carrying a vast collection of stolen rare French paintings from reaching Berlin. On the other side, Paul Scofield’s Colonel Von Waldheim, a Nazi officer with a love for art vows at all costs to bring the paintings back to his homeland.
The Train, despite having a conventional Hollywood narrative which pits a heroic character against an archetypal villain, does not fall into the trap set forth by its own conventionalism. Frankenheimer opts for a visual style characterized by planned and coordinated stunt work with the emphasis on capturing the action from the best possible angle. This film is a leading example of using mise-en-scene to tell the story. In most typical films of such a genre, storytelling falls behind in priority to creating spectacular action sequences. But in The Train, Frankenheimer opts to incorporate action as one of the major components of the film’s mise-en-scene.
The action set-pieces here are extraordinary. Filmed in real-time and with real trains, the camera captures the carnage caused by derailment and high-speed collisions with startling power and accuracy. Interestingly, Frankenheimer was not the first-choice director for The Train. It went to Arthur Penn (Bonnie And Clyde, 1967; Little Big Man, 1970) who was then fired by Lancaster (those were the days when a popular actor could sack a director) because Penn wanted a less visceral approach. Lancaster’s bold decision reaped tremendous rewards as Frankenheimer’s mastery of gritty action and the framing of the camera to capture that action are top-notch.
There is a surprising touch of complexity to the film’s narrative. Apart from the elaborative plan to stop the aforementioned train, there is a pivotal scene where Labiche meets Christine (Jeanne Moreau), a beautiful woman who owns a motel and who subsequently helps to hide Labiche from the Nazis. Frankenheimer hints of a possible romantic relationship between them but he cuts short the time they spend together. The film never resolves this relationship at the end thus breaking the rule that every hero must reunite with his love interest.
The Train also ends on a thought-provoking note. We see Labiche walking alone toward the far distance that is France. Prior to that, Frankenheimer edits shots of barely-damaged crates containing paintings and morbidly juxtaposes it with shots of dead civilian bodies (without even coffins to contain them) slumped against a slope. Was it all worth it – the preservation of a country’s culture at the expense of human lives? The Train is superior in its construction, blending edge-of-your-seat action, excitement, and a gripping story to boot. Recommended!

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