It’s movies like The Train that make me realize what’s lost with CGI. I’m not a technophobe by any stretch, and I don’t necessarily think that practical is inherently better than digital. But I would probably say that good practical effects are better than good digital effects, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie where that’s on better display than The Train, directed by John Frankenheimer.
The film is loosely based on a true story in which the French resistance used clever train maneuvers to prevent Germans from stealing priceless art leading up to the liberation of Paris in World War II. The specifics are, of course, highly dramatized. But the core dynamic is a fascinating one with a very unusual dramatic thrust.
Colonel Von Waldheim (a terrific Paul Scofield), a leader of the German occupation of France, covets the masterpieces of France’s most legendary artists. As allied troops march to the City of Lights, he plans to send them to Germany on one of the last German trains leaving the city. But a group of fighters in the struggling and dwindling French resistance is determined to prevent that from happening. All they have to do is protect the paintings while running down the clock.
The French railway inspector, Labiche, played by the decidedly non-French Burt Lancaster, is at first reluctant to sacrifice any more men for something as quaint as paper and canvas. But eventually, he comes to embrace the effort, motivated by a stubborn anti-German fervor and the spirit of France. The film has a thoughtful reckoning with art and its purpose in a time of war, coming up ambivalent: It unites and inspires the resistance, but fuels narcissists and creates a self-ordained class of intellectual elites like Von Waldheim.
At its core, the story boils down to an elaborate reverse heist in which Labiche and his team reroute, delay, and sabotage a train holding priceless cargo while protecting it from air raids and other demolition attempts. A few of these schematic twists are a little silly, breaking the immersion a bit, which is really my only complaint with the film.
The movie’s real treat is not just the excellent story itself but the way Frankenheimer tells it, or rather, the way he shows it. Every production detail of the train, including and most notably the titular steam engine, is an authentic piece of the era. Actors actually learned how to operate vehicles, including trains, planes, and motorcycles used throughout the film.
The Train features some of the most elaborate deep focus dolly shots I’ve ever seen in any film. At every turn, every shot, and every camera movement, it seems as if Frankenheimer has deliberately chosen the most challenging path to tell his story. The high effort put into the filmmaking is prodigious, and it pays off in the form of a film that’s an absolute treat to simply look at from start to finish.
The conclusion of The Train is absolutely terrific: as Labiche (and the resistance) are stripped down to near nothingness, only raw ruggedness remaining, he doesn’t speak a word in the final half hour. He has a brain-vs.-brawn showdown with Von Waldheim, leading to a poignant and all-time great final scene and shot.
The Train is a absolute triumph and borderline masterpiece. It’s one of the last great epic movies shot in black and white, and one of the great epic movies, period.