Brute force

The greatest action movie of the sound era, The Train, turns 30

And what theme is that? Simply put, the film is a spectacular illustration of the old anecdote about the burning building that contains the last existing copy of King Lear and a random human being you've never met. The question, of course, is which one do you save?

The Train is more than willing to roll up its sleeves, wade into the fray, and search for answers. There's plenty of irony in the notion of a stoic, beefy, anti-intellectual tough guy saving paintings by people he's probably never heard of, and the film doesn't skimp on the dark humor of the situation. ("Labiche!" cries Von Waldheim, during one of his many face-offs with the brawny railroad man, "Those paintings mean as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape!") But The Train never denies anyone, even the sadistic and venal Von Waldheim, a moment of insight.

The picture's collisions and explosions could stand on their own as pure spectacle, like the production numbers in MGM musicals (Frankenheimer stages a train crash as jolting and unexpectedly beautiful as the one in The Fugitive, and pulls off some of the longest, strangest, and most complicated tracking shots this side of a Brian DePalma movie). But we're always aware that the locomotives and motorcycles and bicycles and single-engined Spitfires on display aren't just hunks of metal. They are driven by flesh-and-blood human beings pushed to the brink of their endurance; the issues they fight and die for are as real to them as incoming mortar fire.

The final frames of The Train spell this out with a simplicity that's as moving as it is brutal. Face-to-face with his foe once more, surrounded by wreckage and steam clouds and dead bodies, Von Waldheim demands that Labiche explain the roots of his awesome will to win. "In a million years," the Nazi growls, "I'll bet you couldn't explain to me why you did what you did."

Labiche can explain, of course, and his answer requires no words--only a turn of his head and a single motion of his index finger.

The USA Film Festival screens The Train at 7:30, December 5, at the AMC Glen Lakes. Call 821-NEWS for details.

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