Recent news that two men in Poland claimed to have found a legendary Nazi cargo train allegedly loaded with plundered artwork as well as gold and gems and other treasures comes on the heels of the horrific story a few days earlier of the beheading of 82-year-old Syrian antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad, who endured over a month of interrogation and finally execution rather than cooperate in the plundering and trafficking of priceless Libyan artifacts.
Assad’s willingness to suffer and even die for the sake of the cultural legacy to which he had devoted decades of his professional life invokes philosophical questions for which there are no obvious answers. Are manmade things ever worth dying for? How do you weigh the value of art or artifacts against the value of human life? On the one hand, human life is sacred; things are just things. On the other, the cultural heritage of a people is an irreplaceable treasure that belongs not only to the whole community, but to all future generations.
Such questions are very much at the center of John Frankenheimer’s The Train, a stellar WWII action movie about a Nazi cargo train much like the one reportedly discovered this week in Poland, loaded with priceless artwork plundered from Paris during the last days of the Nazi occupation. (George Clooney’s 2014 flop The Monuments Men covered related territory.)
Loosely inspired by actual events, the film pits Burt Lancaster as a French resistance leader named Labiche attempting to thwart the art grab orchestrated by Paul Scofield’s Nazi Colonel von Waldheim. Despite its fine-arts stakes, The Train is gritty, muscular action movie-making on a grand scale, reflecting Lancaster’s wish for a popular hit following the box-office failure of his previous film, the Italian period piece The Leopard.
As an aside, The Leopard is hailed today as a classic boasting perhaps Lancaster’s best performance, notwithstanding the dubbing of his lines into Italian. Why Lancaster chose to go from being dubbed as an Italian to playing a Frenchman in an English-language film is a mystery; unlike the English Scofield, who manages a decent German accent, Lancaster makes no effort to sound French. (Like Scofield’s next film, A Man for All Seasons, The Leopard is one of the 45 films on the 1995 Vatican film list.)
The Train begins in Paris in 1944, shortly before the liberation of the city. An opening scene, set in the Jeu de Paume Museum, offers our only glimpse of the priceless treasures at stake in the ensuing action. After that, the paintings are packed away into crates, their aesthetic power hidden, their value reduced to an idea — an idea represented only by stenciled names on rough wood: Gauguin, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse.
It is not an idea for which Labiche, a railroad man and underground resistance leader, is prepared to sacrifice human lives. When the museum’s curator, Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), comes to Labiche and his comrades to beg them to save “the glory of France,” Labiche counters that his resistance cell has lost 15 of 18 members — men that, “like your paintings, mademoiselle,” can’t be replaced.
It’s an understandably jaded response from a man who has daily risked his life and that of others over tactical, military concerns, mainly sabotage aimed at hamstringing the occupation and blunting their ability to respond effectively to approaching Allied forces. But when someone close to Labiche risks a bit of mischief aimed at delaying the art train and pays the ultimate price, the stakes change for Labiche. Now he has skin in the game; the cargo represents not just the glory of France, but the sacrifice of his friend.
To von Waldheim, the contents of the crates are far more precious: they are avatars of beauty, but also talismans of his own superiority as a true aesthete. Although he tells his superiors the paintings are far more precious than other spoils and can be sold to fund the ongoing war effort, but the truth seems to be that, as the Nazi army prepares to surrender Paris, he can’t bear to be parted from them, and what his intentions for the works are is far from clear.
A little like the lumbering titular vehicle, The Train starts slow, but once it builds up a head of steam it becomes a thundering juggernaut, powered by Labiche and von Waldheim’s increasingly tense battle of wits. Among supporting players, Jeanne Moreau has a small but memorable part as a bitter widow who aids Labiche despite herself.
Fans of the enormous yet stripped-down vehicular action in Mad Max: Fury Road will appreciate The Train’s far more grounded but still spectacular, persuasive action sequences and explosive set pieces, all filmed with real, hulking trains and other vehicles, with no use of miniatures. Complex, carefully planned tracking shots create a sense of space and coherence of action all but gone in today’s blockbusters.
Creating a credible WWII vibe with its striking black-and-white cinematography — the last major action movie shot in black and white, according to Frankenheimer — The Train nevertheless evokes a Cold War pessimism about the senselessness of war, notwithstanding the “Good War” setting. The climax is not a triumphant affirmation of humanism or the importance of culture; the mission is accomplished and the schemes of evil have been defeated, but at what price?
To the end von Waldheim perceives himself as, in some sense, the victor, since he contemptuously reckons his adversary a philistine unable to appreciate the works he has fought to save for France. It does not occur to von Waldheim that his own indifference to the lives cost by his determination to hold onto his stolen art is the greater impairment.
How do you weigh the cultural heritage of a nation against the value of human life? That’s the subtext of The Train, a wholly persuasive, intelligent thiller crisply directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) with documentary-like realism and emphasis on action and problem-solving.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.