John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964)—which also (loosely) fact-based and about Nazis stealing art treasures in WWII—is probably the sort of movie people were hoping for from The Monuments Men. It’s fast-paced, it’s exciting, it’s suspenseful. Granted, it has almost no sense of humor, but it’s still livelier than the film George Clooney made. Plus, it’s one of the few films that manages to keep the generally too toothy and exuberant Burt Lancaster reined in. (The irony here is that Lancaster had Arthur Penn fired as director and replaced by Frankenheimer, and doesn’t seem to have been granted any more freedom in the bargain.) It’s a kind of film that was not uncommon at the time, but was already old-fashioned. It relies very heavily on an established Hollywood style—not to mention the typical mish-mash of accents. Some characters speak with French accents. The Germans tend to sport German accents —Paul Scoffield, in fact, appears to channeling his inner Conrad Veidt. And Lancaster sounds like…well, Lancaster, but when you consider the prospect of him adopting Maurice Chevalier tones, it was probably for the best.
The film benefits greatly from its physical realism. What you see on the screen is pretty much the real deal. Lancaster is very obviously doing most of his own stunts, and you are always seeing real trains—even when they crash into each other. (The film is in fact such train porn that it ranks with train enthusiasts as the best train movie of all time, though there is some dissent over the amount of damage and even destruction.) Apart from some glimmerings of truth about how Scoffield’s Nazi colonel understands the paintings he’s trying to get out of France before the Allies liberate Paris, while Lancaster’s resistance fighter hasn’t got a clue, the movie is hardly deep. This is pure cardboard Nazi villainy vs. French Freedom Fighters—to the degree that you can pinpoint what French guest star will nobly die next. It’s simple stuff—finely wrought entertainment—but on its own merits, it works.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Train Sunday, March 9, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.