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Questioning the sanity of war, even as it valorizes those who sacrificed their lives to win it, The Train (1964) is a World War II action film tinged with a Cold War sensibility from director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962).
Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) was originally slated to direct the film but was relieved of his command less than one week into filming by star Burt Lancaster, who was also one of the film's producers. Lancaster was concerned that Penn was neglecting the story's potential for action and suspense, and remedied the situation by calling in Frankenheimer, who had directed Lancaster in The Young Savages (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). Frankenheimer in turn discarded Penn's footage, brought in his own writers to overhaul the script, and ultimately delivered the WWII thriller Lancaster had hoped for.
Lancaster stars as Labiche, a railway inspector and member of the French Resistance, who is asked to somehow detain a train loaded with priceless paintings - national treasures by Gauguin, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir and others - confiscated by the occupying forces. This sets in motion a series of elaborate deceptions, hairbreadth chases and ironic twists that constitute The Train's intricate and satisfying plot.
Shot almost entirely on location in France, the production faced unexpected difficulties, especially in regards to the inclement weather in Normandy. "The Allies couldn't invade Normandy until June," Frankenheimer later recalled, "and we were trying to shoot this thing in September and October when the fog comes rolling in from the Channel." Eventually, the production was shut down until the following spring, allowing the crew to shoot interior scenes in Paris and to begin assembling a cut of the film. Once the weather improved, they knew exactly what they needed to finish the picture.
Aside from the weather, there were many other challenges involved in making The Train. To film the bombing of a railway yard, special effects supervisor Lee Zavitz spent six weeks planting dynamite charges beneath the tracks of an actual rail yard (which the French government was already planning to tear apart and renovate), for a scene that lasts only 50 seconds. According to Newsweek, this brief sequence incorporated 140 separate explosions, 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline. No miniatures were used in The Train, a fact that is readily apparent when one views such sequences of carefully-orchestrated destruction that punctuate the film's tightly-wound narrative.
A fine example of the film's life-sized special effects is a collision of two steam locomotives, which was not as simple as it appears. The tracks of the approaching train were dismantled and re-laid below ground level so the impact would be more dramatic, causing the locomotives to destroy one another and tear apart the earth around them rather than bouncing in different directions.
One sequence that proved to be unexpectedly complicated was the derailing of a slow-moving locomotive. Instead of approaching at the planned speed of seven miles per hour, the driver accidentally tripled the speed. As a result, the train left the rails and proceeded to destroy every camera in its path....except one. No crew members were injured, six cameras were demolished, and the sole surviving camera provided a shot better than anything Frankenheimer had anticipated: a close-up view of the catastrophe, concluding with one steel wheel spinning mere inches from the lens of the camera.
When a cut of the film was screened for United Artists executives, the producers were asked to add one more action sequence. Anticipating this request, Frankenheimer already had a scene in mind and, for an additional $500,000 (approximately $5 million by contemporary filmmaking standards) willingly provided it. This scene, of the train being strafed by a British Spitfire, racing toward the safety of a mountain tunnel, proved almost fatal to Frankenheimer and some of the crew. Filming from a helicopter just ahead of the train, the helicopter accidentally pulled into the path of the Spitfire as it sped toward the mountainside. "The Spitfire was roaring toward us at 300 miles an hour," Frankenheimer remembers, "I could see the pilot's face and he looked as terrified as I felt. He missed us by ten feet... My wife was watching on the ground, and she fainted."
Although the sequence is not closely tied to the rest of the plot, it is a masterful achievement of heightened and prolonged suspense that helped solidify The Train's reputation as one of the best action films of the 1960s.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Jules Bricken
Screenplay: Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, Walter Bernstein and (uncredited) Ned Young and Howard Dimsdale
Based on Le Front de l'Art by Rose Valland
Cinematography: Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz
Production Design: Willy Holt
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Labiche), Paul Scofield (Col. Von Waldheim), Albert Remy (Didont), Jeanne Moreau (Christine), Michel Simon (Papa Boule), Suzanne Flon (Miss Villard), Wolfgang Preiss (Major Herren), Howard Vernon (Dietrich).
by Bret Wood