The Train

Not long ago, MK and I watched John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and I was amazed all over again at what a tense, beautifully photographed, and surprisingly thought-provoking action movie this is.

The Train opens in the middle of the night in a Parisian art museum. A German officer, Colonel Waldheim (Paul Scofield), stands in the darkness surrounded by luminous masterpieces. The German occupation of Paris is in its final days. The museum curator appears, and together they regard the art in silence. Then she thanks him. For not being like the rest of the Nazis. For treating her and the art with such respect. For protecting it.

Then the spell is broken as he tells her that he is going to continue protecting it. The art will be taken from the museum and brought to Germany before the Allies take the city. As if on cue, a small army of German soldiers burst into the museum as the lights come up, armed with creates and packaging. As the curator looks on in horror, France’s artistic heritage is entombed in crates with names like “RENOIR” and “PICASSO” stencilled in black lettering across their lids. The scene ends with the curator, standing stunned beneath stark white light and surrounded by empty walls.

The Train is shot in black and white, and is probably the last major action picture shot that way. Throughout the film, Frankenheimer goes for brutal, stark contrasts, cutting frames in half and thirds. His scenes are packed with action all the way into the background, and the camera stalks through the scenery alongside the characters. The first time we meet Burt Lancaster’s character, French railroad engineer and yard manager Paul Labiche, he is striding across the train yard as German troops bustle too and fro with their retreat. Without breaking stride he dodges past arriving trains, armored vehicles, and lines of soldiers.

All of it is actually happening. This is not an effects shot. Every frame is teeming with living detail because there really are things happening in front of the camera. You get the sense that Labiche could just as easily change directions, walk deeper into the frame, and go about an ordinary day. The Train seems to be taking place within a world, not creating one.

When Labiche arrives at his meeting, a clandestine gathering of Resistance members, we get the setup that will take us through the rest of the film. Col. Waldheim’s art train must be stopped at all costs, but without harming the art. The Resistance members initially want nothing to do with it. They have lost friends in this war and the end is in sight. In a few days the Germans will be gone, and they’ve sacrificed enough. Paintings aren’t something worth dying over. The curator is struck dumb when one of Labiche’s men suggests the paintings just be replaced.

This brings us to the most fascinating aspect of The Train. It seriously considers our relationship to culture. Nations have ideas and touchstones, but for most of us they’re not real objects. The Smithsonian is not a part of my life. I haven’t been to the Art Museum of Chicago in years. I haven’t read most of the Western Canon. And neither, I suspect, have you.

Most of us are too damn busy working hard and keeping the wolves at bay to form a personal relationship with the things that supposedly define our civilizations, or our nations. Yet for all that, we identify with a culture based on touchstones that we’ve never actually touched, on ideas we’ve never contemplated. Millions have died “for France” without ever touring the Louvre or taking Communion at Reims Cathedral. Why? How can patriotism, not that of jingoist sloganeering, but the real love of the patria, burn bright enough to make willing heroes of working stiffs and jaded cynics? How does it survive in a disillusioned world?

We begin to alight on an understanding when Papa Boule, a broken-down and mutinous train operator discovers he’s being given the job of driving the art train out of France. Boule is a drunken troll, and hasn’t been allowed to drive trains for some unknown (but easily imaginable) infractions. A conductor at the yard takes him aside during the night shift and explains the cargo, and tells him that these paintings are France. He starts listing the masters on this train, and Boule stops him at Renoir. His eyes go out of focus as he explains that once, when he was a much younger man, he dated a girl who modeled for Renoir.

For reasons he never really explains, Boule decides to save these paintings and sabotage the train. What he sets in motion will eventually involve Labiche’s small Resistance cell and numerous other Resistance members. But it’s Boule’s curious choice to intervene that remains the pivotal point of the film. When he is caught by the Germans, Labiche attempts to win some mercy for him by protesting of Waldheim that Boule is just a foolish old man, who didn’t know what he was doing. Boule turns on him and snarls that he knew exactly what he was doing. Does Labiche?

It’s interesting. Boule refuses to be made a victim or a sucker. This is a film from the early 1960s, distant enough from WWII to be skeptical of the heroic narrative, but not yet soured by the great disillusionment of the 60s and 70s. In just 14 years, Burt Lancaster would wheel on an idealistic young soldier in Go Tell the Spartans and angrily accuse him of being a “fucking hero.” But here in The Train, between World War II and Vietnam, we find a film that considers heroism and self-sacrifice with neither irony nor pity. The paintings are France, and in spite of everything, including a futile massacre in in the trenches and a bloody, ignominious debacle  in 1940, a burned-out blue-collar engineer decides to throw his life away for an idea he’d have mocked if he ever heard someone trying to express it.

The Train is ultimately an action film, and Frankenheimer does a typically expert job of building and sustaining suspense, and laying out clear, coherent, and thrilling set-pieces. But it’s an action film with its mind on bigger questions. Go take a look (it’s available for streaming on Netflix). It’s a great example of the beauty of postwar black-and-white photography, and one of the most thought-provoking action pictures  you’re likely to see.

    • Spades
    • August 29th, 2010 11:58am

    You know I couldn’t read this whole post because I was interested in the premise of this movie. Rob if someone spoiled something for you like a movie, game, or abook would still bother with it? I ask because I remember reading Don Quixote and in the introduction they mentioned how he died. That ruined the whole book for me! I found it really hard to continue on reading.

    This has been happening alot lately as soon as I find out about a plot twist in anything I generally stop bothering with it because I can’t experience the story as well anymore.

      • Flitcraft
      • August 29th, 2010 2:20pm

      You know, I cannot stand the hang-ups people have about “spoilers.” Knowing what happens in a story is irrelevant to my enjoyment, and I absolutely refuse to take pains to avoid revealing plot details. “Spoiler warnings” are the enemy of intelligent discussion, and if knowing what happens in a story really affects your enjoyment, I think you need to reconsider how you engage with art.

      There are a very, very few exceptions to this. Some stories have twists that are so well-executed that it’s truly unfair to reveal them in advance. For instance, The Usual Suspects and Bioshock both have moments that someone should experience without forewarning. However, in those cases it’s not just the “twist” itself that makes those moments work, but how the artists reveal it, and how the process of revelation occurs for the audience member. You are meant to be realizing something right along with the characters in those scenes.

      I think we’ve become more spoiler-obsessed due to the lowered intellectual quality of so much popular entertainment. Shows like Lost used mysteries and plot twists in lieu of interesting character development or a coherent story arc. Battlestar Galactica, though I love it dearly, increasingly did the same. The reason we’ve all gotten so damn obsessed with having the “surprises” preserved for us is that there is often little else beyond the surprise.

      That said, I don’t go into detail on major plot developments just for the hell of it. This post actually reveals very little about what happen in the film, but it does, I hope, give you some stuff to notice or ponder as you watch it, or immediately after. I could just say, “Watch this movie about the French Resistance trying to stop the Nazis from stealing a train full of masterpieces.” But that doesn’t come close to explaining why you should watch this. That’s a setup, nothing more. When I am deciding what I want to see, I need more than the hook. I want to know what the movie is trying to say.

    • Spades
    • August 30th, 2010 12:47am

    You now in the past I didn’t really care about spoilers or anything like that. Hell I would even watch the endings of games I was gonna get. However the first game that I never spoiled for myself and simply played throug it without knowing any of the plot twists was Prince of Persia (2008). By the end of the game I was so attached to Elika that when she died at the end I was shocked (I literally let out a good old fashioned “Holy shit!”).

    That was when I cared about spoilers and I honestly think its ruining my gaming and my reading life. I’m afraid that if I see a game trailer or read a review for a game I’m interested in, I’ll see spoilers and I’ll cease to even be interested. I’m actually considering not getting Mafia 2 since I saw some spoilers for the game in video review. I was waiting for that game for a long time. Its fucking ridiculous.

    I actually feel silly now that I returned Don Quixote to the library, that book was really funny but goddamnit did they have to spoil his death in the introduction?!

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