Brute force

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

John Frankenheimer's World War II-era railway adventure The Train turns 30 this year, and it's almost appalling to consider just how infrequently modern-day Hollywood has mustered up the energy and dedication to match its countless splendors.

A huge, roiling, clanking, screeching, rumbling hulk of mayhem that seizes you from frame one and never lets go, the film takes such visible delight in the image of small, desperate men blowing huge things sky-high that it amounts to the very first Joel Silver picture. After sitting through it, it's difficult to watch recent heavy-hardware action movies like The Terminator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Under Siege, and Speed without remembering that Frankenheimer led American cinema into this particular pop culture free-fire zone first--and with considerably more intelligence and insight.

Set on the eve of the Allied army's advance into Paris, The Train begins by setting up its central premise: that an evil man--a Nazi commander named Colonel Von Waldheim, played by the incomparable Paul Scofield--could have more appreciation for French culture than some of the righteous rebels who oppose him.

During the Nazi occupation, Von Waldheim personally oversaw and protected from harm canvases by Renoir, Seurat, Matisse, Picasso, Bracques, and other geniuses. Now he wants to box them up and ship them back to Berlin on a custom-chartered train. He regales his brutish, boot-clicking bosses with tales of their financial worth ("Enough to equip 10 Panzer divisions!"), but this strategy is a ruse designed to conceal how deeply Von Waldheim loves the paintings. He wants them for his own because he believes nobody appreciates them like he does.

Enter Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a railway inspector who moonlights as a saboteur with the French underground. At first, he seems a rather curious hero. You'd think a story like this would cry out for a high-minded, cultured protagonist who cares more about art than the villain, not less. But Labiche is as sullen and simplistic and classically macho as Von Waldheim is witty and complicated and effete.

Labiche doesn't care one whit for art, and can't see why he should risk his life and those of his fellow resistance fighters to save it. His mission is complicated by the fact that the paintings can't be damaged; blowing up the train is out of the question. So Labiche and his dwindling team of merry men formulate an elaborate plan that will require tenacity, guts, and more than a little luck to pull off. And since it's one of the most delightfully outlandish plots in action cinema, I won't reveal it here.

Frankenheimer and Lancaster--who, by that point, had already worked together on Seven Days in May and Birdman of Alcatraz--were as preordained a match as Scorsese and DeNiro. Each brought out the best in the other. Lancaster's classiness and grace, and his flickering hints of tenderness, humanized a director who had been criticized as a too-cold, too-cunning artist more adept at mechanics of filmmaking than the logistics of human emotion. And because Frankenheimer made movies the way Lancaster moved across the screen--economically, elegantly, mixing flamboyance with no-nonsense forcefulness--he created the ultimate vehicle for the ultimate physical actor.

They made the best of unexpected good fortune: to cite just one example, when the director learned from a French government official that a rail yard they planned to film was going to be dismantled afterward, the director asked if his crew could dynamite it instead--then rewrote the screenplay to incorporate an unexpected Allied bombing run. They worked a stroke of very bad luck into the narrative as well: when Lancaster ripped a leg muscle, they wrote the leg wound into the script, and the actor and the movie kept right on going. (The men retooled the screenplay so heavily that they subsequently asked to be credited as cowriters with Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, and Walter Bernstein, who would later be honored with a best screenplay Oscar nomination. Three decades later, the Writers' Guild of America is still haggling over the matter.)

The final 40 minutes of the movie is a testament to the creative resourcefulness of both men. Tired and hounded and desperate, limping up and down French hillsides armed with only a submachinegun and his wits, Labiche enters an immortal rogue's gallery of relentlessly singleminded protagonists that includes Odysseus, Captain Ahab, Buster Keaton, and the Road Runner.

What makes The Train great isn't merely its technique--its ominously confident pacing, its rapturous black-and-white photography, its woodwinds-and-war-drums-and-bistro-accordion score, its contingent of fine supporting turns. The film is also memorable for the way it balances intellectualized suspense and primitive violence, so that one quality reinforces the other in a neverending cycle of mechanized frenzy and spooky stillness.

That, and the way the film keeps one eye on motivation at all times. Unlike too many current action movies, The Train doesn't throw elaborate setpieces in your face, then try to halfheartedly justify them through crude plotting and last-minute character developments. Every stretch of track that's dismantled, every body that's gunned to pieces, and every piece of railway equipment that's incinerated in this picture enriches the narrative. Every sooty frame illustrates the movie's timeless theme.

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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