Sean Sweeney 09/03/2015
Two of the best action subgenres of the 1950s & '60s were the POW escape films (Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and train adventure flicks (Narrow Margin, The Train, Dark of The Sun). So what would happen if you combine the two? You get a really fun, utterly ridiculous, totally memorable movie from ’65: Von Ryan’s Express. Besides being a train adventure, what sets this one apart from other POW flicks is the adversary. While the prisoners of Stalag 17 and The Great Escape were housed in German camps and Kwai had Japanese overlords, the captives of Von Ryan’s Express are stuck in an Italian camp. And whether based on any kind of truth or not, Italian guards just don’t feel as cruel or deadly as their other Axis Powers partners. Based on a novel by David Westheimer (who also penned the novelization of Days of Wine and Roses), with the solid journeyman director Mark Robson (Earthquake, Valley of the Dolls) at the helm, this was made in the heyday of Frank Sinatra vanity projects and as usual he often feels miscast as an actual human being. On paper his role seems better suited for a more obviously physical presence, like a Lee Marvin. After all, Sinatra looks like he would be more comfortable with a martini in his hand than a machine gun, but his skinny frame in a wrinkled military outfit only lends to the absurdity and the fun.
A depressed group of mainly British prisoners in an Italian camp get a load of energy into their squalid existence when American Colonel Ryan (Sinatra) shows up, having been shot down in Italy. The highest ranking officer before him showing up was the very English Major Fincham (the always watchable Trevor Howard, in the more hammy late phase of his impressive career), who doesn’t like being pushed around by the runty Yank. When Ryan sees the poor condition of the health of the men, he rats out the tunnels they’ve been digging, in order to get the medicine the wacky Italians have been holding from them. But Ryan slowly earns the Brit’s respect by getting them new clothes and taking his punishment in the “sweat box.” Later, when it appears the war is coming to an end, the Italian guards flee giving the POWs free reign. They take off through Italy but are eventually caught again and put on a train headed for Rome, which is now overseen by nasty Germans who kill all the sick men. This is where the more original action setpieces start, as Sinatra and the boys take over the train and then have to ride it out of Italy while posing as Germans. In maybe the most bizarre scene, a British doctor (Edward Mulhare) who speaks some German poses as a Nazi high command to get the clearance for the train trip to continue and the two fifty-somethings, Howard and Sinatra, dress up like Nazi soldiers to accompany him. They must be the two oldest looking privates in the German army and actually resemble the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow when they dress up as flying monkey soldiers in The Wizard of Oz. What a sight for sore eyes!
Sinatra strides through the movie with his usual ring-a-ding-ding coolness, his bomber jacket and tilted pilot’s hat sitting just right on his head, while Howard--fresh off of barking all over the South Seas in Mutiny on the Bounty--chews scenery so intensely you fear for the actor’s health, especially up against the ultra laidback Frank. The supporting cast includes James Brolin and a host of reliable Euro character actors like Adolfo Celi (James Bond’s villain in Adolfo Celi), Sergio Fantoni and Wolfgang Preiss (who specialized in playing creepy Nazis in a slew of films including The Train and Is Paris Burning?).
While some of the early prison camp moments are almost bizarre (the Italians are played for laughs and actually have slapstick moments complete with slide whistles), the train action is truly exciting and their escape from Italy is clever and actually very suspenseful. I have to admit, somehow I never managed to see this film until I stumbled upon it recently and while it may not live up to the POW masterpieces of Lean, Wilder and Sturges it still gets the job done. And even by today’s standard for action and violence, it holds up very well and is just as entertaining as most WWII flicks of recent years. I’m just a sucker for any film that so ambitiously finds itself covering two distinct subgenres--three, if you count “Sinatra in the '60s” as a genre.
Central Italy, August 1943. With the collapse of the Italian war effort, the SS herds 400 Allied POWs aboard a heavily guarded freight train and embarks for an internment camp in Austria. Realizing it's their only chance to escape, Colonel Joseph Ryan (Sinatra) and a handful of officers manage to subdue their guards and hijack the train. Barreling across Nazi-occupied Italy, Ryan and his men race for the Swiss border, as German troops, the Gestapo and a dive bombing fleet of Messerschmidts follow in deadly pursuit.
- Starring: James Brolin, Frank Sinatra, Wolfgang Preiss, Brad Dexter, Sergio Fantoni, Raffaella Carrà, Edward Mulhare
- Format: Color
- Language: English
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Number of Discs: 1
- Rating: Not Rated
- Label: Twentieth Century Fox
- Run Time: 117 minutes
- Catalogue #: 2283536
- Hollywood and Its War Films
- 2 Additional Featurettes
- Bringing Movies to Life: The Legacy of Jerry Goldsmith
- Isolated Score Track