A Movie A Day: Quint catches VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965) I once told you Ryan, if only one gets out, it's a victory.
Published at: Aug. 3, 2008, 8:37 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Okay. I still didn’t get much sleep, but I’m bound and determined to make this a full AMAD installment.
We follow over writer Wendell Mayes from yesterday’s THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS… Mayes had a fascinating career. He not only wrote today’s VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, but also had a hand in previous AMAD In Harm’s Way as well as the great and underseen Gregory Peck Western Thriller STALKING MOON, cheesy-but-still-goddamn-awesome THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and DEATH WISH.
This film hit in a weird time. This was two years before THE DIRTY DOZEN and KELLY'S HEROES sort of put a big old period on this type of film, but came after other great men-on-a-mission WW2 flicks like GUNS OF NAVARONE and to a certain extent THE GREAT ESCAPE.
I’m afraid it kind of got lost amongst those giants, at least in popular knowledge.
I don’t know if I’d say VON RYAN’S EXPRESS is as good as any of those movies, but it is an immensely enjoyable film and worth a viewing if you haven’t seen it.
Basically you got Frank Sinatra as an American pilot that is shot down in Italy during WW2. Fascists at this point, the Italians are on sketchy ground with the Nazis, the alliance stretched thin.
So while Sinatra is a POW, he’s not in German hands. Rather he is put in an Italian POW camp filled with mostly British soldiers where he’s given the nickname Von Ryan for working closely with the Italians, knowing that Italy’s surrender is close. He works to keep as many of the POWs alive, going so far as to betray an escape plan in order to barter for medicine and a healthier living area.
When the POW camp is abandoned, Ryan leads the POWs out, but they quickly fall into German hands and are gathered together on a prisoner train.
The bulk of the movie is set on the train and our guys taking it and using it to flee to Switzerland.
As with all movies of this type, the film rests upon how well drawn the characters are and one of this film’s many strengths are the character types. Sinatra is… Sinatra. Suave, cool, badass, but he’s paired with a British soldier played by the great Trevor Howard and boy does Howard play him grouchy. I love it. This poor bastard has been leading these captives for months, watching his people get sick and die all the while carefully planning a tunnel-digging to freedom only to have this bloody American come in and in a day pull rank and ruin all his planning.
It’s a great dichotomy. Howard doesn’t trust Sinatra and is constantly second guessing him, but is too steeped in army protocol to directly contradict him. Sinatra has to gain Howard’s respect.
The flick plays smart, taking twists at unexpected times. We see well-laid plans go awry when you least expect them to and have to watch our characters scramble to avoid catastrophe, thinking on their feet. It’s a pretty common staple now, but I’m used to movies of this period setting up what seems like minor action set pieces, taking time to go over each detail so we know what we’re seeing it when it happens. Usually if something goes wrong, it’s at the end of these sequences, but here they really threw me for a loop a couple of times.
Since I neglected the amazing work of Franz Waxman in yesterday’s THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, I will not make the same mistake today. Jerry Goldsmith composed a fantastic score here… a score that’s a little atypical. The action is pounding, but there are some bizarre strings that pop up during the POW camp scene. It’s not exactly a comedy score, but it’s something unique that really benefits these moments, keeping it from being depressing. I guess what I’m trying to say is the score is adventurous and really sells the adventure aspect of the flick.
Mark Robson directed the film, a man who cut his teeth with Val Lewton on such flicks as BEDLAM and THE 7TH VICTIM. We’ll be getting to those and a few more Robson films in the coming months, but I will say that while the direction isn’t exactly world-changing in VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, he does a very nice job setting the time and place. The action scenes are well staged, too. The final push for the border gets crazy big… hundreds of soldiers, a ticking clock, German planes versus good guys with machine guns… Good stuff.
Like many films of this era, I noticed the ending on this one is abrupt as all hell. They didn’t believe in prolonged finales. We spend 2 hours getting to know a myriad of characters, but when we don’t need the lead anymore the movie’s just over. I kind of like it this way… My imagination fills in the gaps. Where did the rest of the group go? What did Howard do from this point on? I like to think he knocked up a few Swiss milkmaids and then went back out to bitch-slap some Nazi fools before the war ended. Maybe he could even crossed over into other AMADs… maybe he stole Julie Andrews away from Christopher Plummer and taught the Von Trapp kids some good old pub songs? Hey, it’s the same time period. Von Trapp’s Express anyone?
Final Thoughts: Once our guys get on that Nazi-controlled train the movie had me completely. I was engaged at every stop-off, at every run-in with soldiers, the Gestapo (one of my favorite scenes in the movie, actually, when the Gestapo follows Sinatra dressed in a Nazi uniform back onto the train and you think he’s fucked… but then you find out exactly what the Gestapo agent wanted) and prisoners on the train, including the too-hot-for-words Raffaella Carra who plays an Italian mistress of a high ranking Nazi. Her character actually belongs in noir more than in this movie, but I loved that twist… she’s dark, conniving, beautiful and quite cold. Give it a view, definitely.
Before I hit the schedule for next week, Harry pointed out that you can (legally) watch this entire movie in 480p on Hulu. I’ve embedded below: