A long overdue screening of this rarely seen WWII/French Resistance classic occurred on British TV today (TCM) much to my satisfaction, as I hadn't seen The Train since one Sunday when I was in my early teens.
Burt Lancaster stars as a French railwayman and Resistance operative who tries to sabotage Nazi Paul Schofield's plan to pillage France of its art treasures during the closing days of the war.
The roots of the story are based of course in truth (and the factual book regarding the events; 1961's Le front de l'art by Rose Valland), and it is those same roots that recently inspired the George Clooney flop The Monuments Men. It's fair to say then that this John Frankenheimer picture, complete with a curious but gripping mix of hard edged documentary style and slick resourceful action, is the superior telling and one that has stood the test of time well. It's also worth mentioning that the film came to Frankenheimer at Lancaster's request, after the star fired the original director Arthur Penn for fear that the film would be too thoughtful and not action packed enough - and therefore not a hit - with him at the helm.
The Train is a war film like no other, largely because of the truth inherent in the film - the valiant acts the French people undertook for the security and salvation of prized artwork, something which could be considered nonessential. What makes it all the more astounding was the fact that these were works that some of those who risked their lives to protect had never even seen! As Lancaster says to Jeanne Moreau widowed hotelier at one point; "Do you know what's in that train? The national heritage! The pride of France...Crazy, isn't it?"
Crazy indeed, but awe inspiring and admirable. It makes you wonder just how and why these courageous people put their lives on the line for art, and that's the point of the film surely. Allegedly Penn's movie was to explore Lancaster's character's love and relationship with art, but personally I think I prefer his motivation and heroism to be less clear to the viewer. Ultimately, it's worth remembering that when we say that the Allies fought for our freedom, culture and way of life, it also means that they fought for the preservation of our cultural heritage too. The final scene, flitting between the heaps of mown down dead and the crates marked 'Renoir' or 'Van Gogh' is undoubtedly a powerful and thought provoking one.