Sunday, August 14, 2011

Movie Review: The Train (1964)

Directed by John Frankenheimer. 1964

I always stop myself after thinking "they don't make movies like this anymore." Why should any age or generation make movies exactly like those of another? Yet even as style changes the essence of film, regardless of the genre, usually remains: drama and narrative. At least there is an interesting premise, however poorly it may be developed. Perhaps the spate of, well, bad, summer blockbusters has  brought out this line of thinking once again. We recently looked at Captain America which can hardly be said to be about very much of anything. Look at the paragraphs of contortions we had to to do just to figure out of if anything important was happening in Captain America and even last year's superior Iron Man 2, both above average action movies. In the absence of ideas the only fact that makes these movies even watchable is that they are clearly about one person who we invariably feel some sympathy with. Though as Aristotle warns us, a series of things that happen is not significant just because they happen to one person. John Frankenheimer's 1964 film The Train, reminds one that an action picture can be both entertaining and full of ideas. The Train is a terrific action movie with a great cast, spectacular action, style, and actual ideas.

The slow opening is the perfect preface. "August 2, 1944, one thousand five hundred eleven days into the German occupation of Paris." A Nazi officer walks into a building. It is a museum. He doesn't walk in the stiff, yanking gate of the SS but with a detached calm, almost striding in. Walking softly, deferentially, among the paintings he pauses, deciding which to visit. He decides on a Gauguin and illuminates it. And then another painting, and another. The curator enters, looks at the Gauguin and asks, "It was in the Clouvet collection, wasn't it?" The officer, Franz von Waldheim, replies, "It was," ever so slightly drawing out the phrase. Yes it was, but it is here now. The Nazis have taken it. We have taken it. It is ours because we are better. And we are going to move all of the paintings out of France by train into Germany because the Allies are set to take Paris any day.

More specifically, Waldheim is taking them out of France, and not for their cash value. He tells the curator, "We [Germans] all may not appreciate artistic merit." Waldheim does, though, and he manipulates his superior, who does not care for art let alone the "degenerate trash" Waldheim intends to move, into giving him a train to Germany. This is one of many instances in which Waldheim tricks or even lies to other officers to save his precious cargo and throughout the film he stands out from the other officers as someone far less concerned with military efficiency and Nazi decorum than seizing his private cultural inheritance.

To keep the paintings if not in French hands at least on French soil the curator turns to the train operators who have been operating as a resistance cell to foil the Nazis whenever possible. Only three remain and Labiche, their leader, is not persuaded to risk lives for paintings. He tells the curator, "This morning we had four men left in this group. Now we are three. We started with eighteen. Like your paintings mademoiselle, we couldn't replace them." "I won't waste lives on paintings," he finishes. She replies,
They wouldn't be wasted. Excuse me. I know that's a terrible thing to say, but those paintings are part of France. The Germans want to take them away. They've taken our land, our food. They live in our houses. And now they're trying to take our art, this beauty, this vision of life born out of France. Our special vision, our trust. We hold it in trust, don't you see? For everyone. This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that.
Can you imagine a contemporary film articulating those points, let alone an action movie? She's not talking about preserving a way of life, things that are valuable or priceless, or even a bona fide but common theme of action movies, freedom. She's talking about preserving, and keeping, a way of looking at the world, a unique French sense of life. In other words, a culture. Too it is "held in trust" for the world, that is, they are they curators of the culture, and they must see that it goes on existing. They must preserve this beautiful, unique way of looking at the world.

Labiche is not persuaded, in fact he only takes charge of the train with paintings by a series of coincidences. When the train's previous engineer, Papa Boule, is caught sabotaging it to slow it down and keep it in France, Labiche defends him to Waldheim as a foolish old man who didn't know what he was doing. Now Papa Boule wasn't fighting for culture so much as "the glory of France." In fact in an earlier scene a friend calls him "sadly deficient" in matters of culture. Nonetheless when Labiche tries to protect him by telling Waldheim that Papa Boule saved his [Waldheim's] train, Papa Boule bursts out, "His train! His! It's my train! I know what I'm doing. Do you? You'll help them. I practically raised you, but you're no better than they are." He might as well be saying, "our," though he means it in a different way than the curator. Still, it is quite severe criticism. The curator gave us one argument to save the art, Papa Boule another. The two remaining men in Labiche's group do it because they see it as part of their larger resistance. What about Labiche? He never seems persuaded by any argument but just keeps going so others don't have to go alone. At last, though, Labiche is alone and repeatedly sabotaging the train in the hope that the Allies will arrive.

So at the end, why is Labiche fighting? To see through the task others died for? To keep resisting? To deprive the Germans of the art? I'm not entirely certain and am sure the ambiguity of this point will bother some. For my part the ambiguity plays an unusual and effective role. Labiche has several arguments to stop this train, each which he finds unpersuasive. Yet he never has any time to stop and think. He is either going to continue resisting or he is going to stop and wait for the allies. He doesn't have time to weigh matters and he never acts with the obvious conviction of the other characters. In fact the only factor he ever weighs in is human lives and whenever someone offers him a justification he could latch on to he mentions who died in the name of that idea. He acts as if every step in this mission is one more than he wants to take. As the Allies are delayed and more men risk their lives Labiche grows more indignant at the situation, but backing out will neither save the train nor, since they will go anyway, anyone's lives.

And Waldheim knows of his doubt, taunting him in their final confrontation:
Here's your prize Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you Labiche? Do you have a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as string of pearls to an ape. You beat me by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing or why. You are nothing Labiche. A lump of flesh. The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did.
Waldheim's noxious ideology boils over as he browbeats Labiche for his philistinism.  Humanity, Waldheim in essence argues, consists not in all men by their nature, but only in those who comprehend greatness. Thus art does not belong to everyone by relating to a shared humanity, but to those who respond to it. Art does not enrich humanity, but constitutes it. Waldheim is a frightening caution of much, and that he is not maniacal but ideological means his character poses some legitimate questions for us. Three quite serious and intertwined ones in fact: What is man, what is he worth, and what do you do to him?

The final shot sums up the dilemmas and the cost:


It is worth noting the many technical successes of The Train both to praise them and point by way of contrast where many films go wrong today. The script itself is compact. It is careful about how it gives the audience the information we need to understand what is going on. Sometimes the information is conveyed visually, sometimes through a conversation between characters, sometimes it is implied. Never, though, does one think what one so frequently does today during a movie, "Ahh, here are characters having a completely useless conversation just to give us information." Similarly, the film is economical about what it shows us and what it does not. The whole plot about disguising the train stations takes place off screen. When Labiche is held captive in a hotel room the whole elaborate ensuing scene in which he makes a phone call is never explained, rather it simply happens. Too we don't need to hear the phone call because we know what it's about. We don't need dialogue between Labiche and the engineer he collaborates with. We don't need any of this information and we don't get it which makes The Train, despite its two hour and fifteen minute run time, a sleek picture.

Maurice Jarre's brassy score of clichés is not the greatest and in fact it is rather. . . distracting. Frankly it's more suited to Hogan's Heroes than a serious movie.

The cinematography is nicely balanced between conveying the action with clarity and style. The above shots demonstrate the attention to dramatic content of the scene and frame.

The special effects are not so much effects as staged instances of what takes place in the story. There are no miniatures and no film effects, but instead real huge trains, crashes, and explosions. The action scenes are few, well-timed and paced, and perfectly realistic. The massive vehicles moving have weight, the crashes are full of shards and debris, and the long, wide shots let us take everything in. In particular, the scene in which a Spitfire chases down the locomotive has a terrific sense of danger. While they are persuasive because they are realistic, the action scenes are engrossing because they carry dramatic weight. Since anyone can die at any moment all of the action scenes have tension.

An action picture well-cast, with two top-notch actors of tremendous screen presence in opposing roles, filmed with technical virtuosity of every kind throughout, which entertains, and finally asks some serious questions.

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