14 May 2020

After Catching The Train

The Train is a 1964 movie about French railroad personnel preventing a German army officer from removing a trainload of paintings from Paris toward the end of World War 2.

In real life, the French accomplished this through the national sport of bureaucracy—demanding extra paperwork, routing the train in a circle around Paris, delaying it at stations for more paperwork, and shunting the freight cars into yards until the Allied forces arrived. But that wouldn’t have made a thrilling movie.

Instead, producer and star Burt Lancaster wanted action. To that end he removed the original director, Arthur Penn, after three days of filming. Penn, coming from The Miracle Worker, planned to emphasize the psychological change in Lancaster’s character, from thinking that paintings are low priority for his Resistance cell to putting his life on the line for them.

Lancaster’s previous film, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, had been a poorly received by critics and paying audiences in America. (It’s now considered a classic.) So he wanted less psychology, more action. And since Lancaster was the producer as well as the star, he got it.

Lancaster sent Penn home and flew in John Frankenheimer, who had just directed him in Seven Days in May. The production shut down briefly while Frankenheimer and his team reworked the script and plotted out new set-pieces.

As a result, The Train has great action sequences. Early on, the movie shows the Allies bombing a rail yard. The crew really blew up that yard with dynamite and permission from the French government, which needed to renovate those tracks anyway. The long shot shows real explosive shock waves rippling through the ground.

Another sequence features a steam engine being derailed to stall traffic on a line. The scene’s famous final shot shows the engine crashing toward us in a wave of steel and dirt ending with one wheel spinning in the air only centimeters in front of the camera. Frankenheimer has talked about how that stunt was only partially planned. The engine came in too fast, it wiped out a bunch of other cameras, and he didn’t realize what he’d captured until he saw the surviving dailies.

One of The Train’s most impressive effects, however, is Burt Lancaster. The former circus acrobat could do stunts that few other leading men would try. Early on there’s a single shot in which he slides down a long ladder, runs past the camera so we can see his face, and jumps onto a moving locomotive that carries him back to the camera to deliver his line.

Ironically, Lancaster injured his knee while playing golf during production and had to limp through the final reels. To explain that, Frankenheimer added a scene in which the Germans shoot Lancaster’s character in the leg. And, man, he goes down hard!

Unfortunately, aside from those action sequences, The Train doesn’t have a lot of traction. The most complex character is the antagonist, an art-loving German officer played by Paul Scofield. Lancaster’s hero still makes the transition from skeptic about the paintings to fan, but that shift is never explored. Almost every other character gets killed, but only a couple of those deaths carry weight. The story lost too much in becoming an action movie.

No comments: