Burl reporting for duty! Ha ha, yes, I’m here to review a war movie, though I guess a specification ought to be made before we go any further: it’s more an adventure story with the war – World War II, that is – as a backdrop! That seems to me an important distinction, even if movies purporting to recreate some actual wartime event are usually as full of fake heroics and jumped-up drama as the totally fictional adventure stories!
Well, there’s a taste of reality in Von Ryan’s Express anyway, since the first part of it deals with a POW camp in occupied Italy, and the novel on which the movie’s based was by a guy who actually spent a lot of time in just such a camp! The story begins as Yankee flier Colonel Frank Sinatra is shot down and imprisoned in the camp, which is mostly filled with Tommies who’ve been there for years and are constantly trying to escape! It’s of course their duty to do so, as we know from The Great Escape! But Sinatra is certain that liberation is near, and his determination to play nice with his captors and wait it out earns him the Teutonic prefix Von! Major Trevor Howard spends most of the picture pretty disgusted with Sinatra’s approach!
Well, Sinatra makes his mistakes, of that you can be sure! But there’s a bust out and a fairly quick recapture, and the whole prison camp of men end up in boxcars on a train bound for Germany! That’s a place none of them are in a particular hurry to visit, at least not as prisoners! So they commandeer the thing, and it becomes the express train of the title!
I’m a lover of microgenres as you know, and there are maybe just enough WWII train movies to form one! Of course the other big taco in this category is John Frankenheimer’s The Train, a movie that came out a year before this one and which I unabashedly am wild about! That’s the one where Burt Lancaster plays a Free French partisan whose day job is yardmaster of a Paris railyard! He gets persuaded to stop a Nazi train full of stolen art, and the movie becomes a great action/suspense tale with actual speeding locomotives smashing into one another in titanic crashes of steaming, screeching metal! It’s amazing, and Frankenheimer’s trains have a heavy, monumental tactility the one in Von Ryan’s Express sadly lacks!
But it’s a pretty enjoyable yarn nonetheless! Sinatra is pretty decent, and of course Wolfgang Priess is in there as a Nazi, same as he was in The Train! There are a few lapses in logic here and there (how did they unhook the flaming boxcars and reattach the coach car in such a short time?), but Mark Robson, who started his career making excellent Val Lewton pictures like The 7th Victim and ended it with another train movie, the crazy Avalanche Express, does a pretty decent job with the suspense scenes! I give this movie two and a half formations of completely naked men!
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