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Friday 21 January 2022

The Train (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and Walter Bernstein, based on the book Le front de l’art by Rose Valland
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau

Index: 2022 Centennials.

Telly Savalas wasn’t the only important name in film to be born on 21st January, 1922, because Paul Scofield also found his way into the world, albeit on the other side of the pond in Birmingham, England. Savalas is the bigger star, because we’ve probably all seen a few of his films and his bald head made him in an instantly recognisable figure. Scofield dedicated most of his career to the theatre, having discovered Shakespeare at Varndean School in Brighton at the age of twelve, but he reached pinnacles in acting that are the envy of every classical actor. For instance, a poll of Royal Shakespeare Company actors in 2004 decreed his King Lear as the greatest Shakespearean performance of all time, potentially a greater honour to him than his triple crown of Oscar, Emmy and Tony, which he achieved in a record span of only seven years. His Tony and Oscar were both for A Man for All Seasons, the latter ahead of Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Michael Caine as Alfie. His Emmy was for Male of the Species, an NBC TV movie.

The Train was the last feature that Scofield made before A Man for All Seasons, after only two in the fifties: That Lady in 1955, in which he played King Philip II of Spain, stuck in a love triangle with Gilbert Roland for the attentions of Olivia de Havilland; and Carve Her Name with Pride, the 1958 biopic of Violette Szabo, a valiant British spy working undercover in France, though his role was fictitious, a blend of many of her male colleagues. Similarly, The Train is based on real events during World War II, but I believe that Scofield’s role, as Colonel Franz von Waldheim of the Luftwaffe, was made up for the movie. It’s an unusual role, but then it’s also a highly unusual feature, given that it wears the clothes of an action movie and wears them well; is, of course, a war movie too; but is at heart a brutal character drama. What’s stayed with me the most about The Train isn’t the train at all, but what it means to three characters: von Waldheim, a Nazi art lover; Paul Labiche, an agent of the French Resistance; and Christine, a simple café owner.

As the title suggests, though, we should begin with the train. We’re in Nazi occupied Paris at the tail end of the war, the date being 2nd August, 1944, and Scofield gets the first great scene, in the Jeu de Paume. During the war, it was the home of a large amount of art, some already there but most plundered by the Nazis from the collections of French Jews and art dealers. In real life, much of it was intended to be divided between Hermann Göring, who visited it twenty times between 1940 and 1942 to see expositions hosted for him of the latest loot, and Adolf Hitler’s personal art museum, the Führermuseum in his hometown of Linz. The Martyr’s Room also held what the Nazis deemed “degenerate art”, legally banned from Germany. Joseph Goebbels wanted this sold to finance both the construction of the Führermuseum and the wider war effort, but Göring planned to use the proceeds to swell his own galleries. Here, it’s all degenerate art, rescued from destruction by von Waldheim who doesn’t believe that taste can be decreed.

And initially, Mademoiselle Villard, the curator of the Jeu de Paume, thanks him for protecting France’s national heritage, even if it was for his own personal reasons. She changes her tune when, after viewing some of it one last time, he orders it all loaded onto an imminent train bound for Germany. Even the Nazis expect France to be liberated soon and von Waldheim wants its art to remain in German hands. So Villard goes to Paul Labiche, the most senior organiser of the local Resistance, which seems more important than it is, given that there are only three of them left, to plead for his help in stopping the train from leaving Paris. He’s OK with the idea until he realises that she has a caveat: without blowing it up. That’s a different matter entirely! But just as von Waldheim persuades his superior, Gen. von Lubitz, that it’s worth a billion gold reichsmarks, Villard persuades Labiche that they’re keeping it in trust for France and the world and “there are worse things to risk your life for than that”.

And so, even before the train starts to move, we have two fascinating opponents in play. Labiche is clearly supposed to be the good guy, on the basis that he’s played by Burt Lancaster and he works for the French Resistance, doing everything he can to piss off the Nazis and kick their fascist occupying force out of his country. However, he doesn’t care about the art in the slightest, which says something about the state of his soul. He’s a man, or has become a man, for whom beauty has left the world, at least until the Nazis are gone and France can be free once more. He’s driven entirely by opposition; he’s not really for anything any more, only against a single enemy. Meanwhile, the calm and almost emotionless von Waldheim not only sees beauty but sees it in the art of his enemies, art that his masters would burn as worthless if it wasn’t ironically so valuable. He’s absolutely for something and he sees the escape of this art on this train as more important than anything else, including the lives of his fellow Nazis evacuating France.

Put in those terms, we could be forgiven for initially siding with this Nazi rebel with a cause. We initially see this art as the movie’s McGuffin and the labelling of the crates behind the opening credits tells us just how valuable it is: “2 Gauguin”, “8 Cezanne”, “7 Van Gogh”, “2 Picasso”, “7 Renoir”, “4 Degas” and so on. Whatever uniform Waldheim happens to wear, he’s the force trying to save it. His superiors see the evacuation of the men and machinery of war as more important to the greater war effort, even if France will soon be lost. They’d burn the Jeu de Paume and everything inside it rather than leave something of such value to the French, much of it without even a tear. Labiche wouldn’t carry a torch to light the spark, but he wouldn’t risk the lives of his men to stop anyone who would either. He has more important things to do to pave the way for the liberation of Paris. So, could we be on the side of von Waldheim because that’s the side of beauty and art and national treasure?

Of course, the question doesn’t remain remotely that simple, because both characters have plenty of time to evolve over a couple of hours, while this film tells their stories, but it’s important to remember that it does remain that simple to them. To von Waldheim, The Train is all about his valiant attempt to save a priceless collection of art and Labiche is an increasingly annoying obstacle aiming to stop him doing so. To Labiche, The Train is about his patriotic duty as a Frenchman to hinder the enemy occupying his country in any way he can. To both, nothing else matters, something that becomes ever clearer as the body count continues to inexorably rise. Sure, it’s von Waldheim ordering people to be shot but Labiche is utterly aware of the consequences of his actions. Even in the final memorable scene, which inevitably comes down to just two men facing each other against the backdrop of the titular train, nothing matters to either of them except the one thing that does: to von Waldheim, the art; to Labiche, the death of his enemy.

And I did mention that this was an action movie, right? While all this is based on true events, it’s only a loose adaptation of the book by Rose Valland, the art historian at the Jeu de Paume fictionalised here as Mlle. Villard. The collection was real, the dates were real and the train was real. Even the involvement of the French Resistance was real, but it manifested as a concerted effort to frustrate a journey through bureaucracy. The real train only managed to travel a few miles out of Paris, where it was seized in a railyard by Lt. Alexandre Rosenberg of the Free French forces, ironically given that, when his men opened the doors, he saw many pieces of art he knew well, having been displayed in the home and galleries of his father, Paul Rosenberg, one of modern art’s key dealers. But that sort of thing does not an action movie make, so embellishments were invented, ones that turn this into quite the visual feast, a feast that was shot in black and white. Director John Frankenheimer later suggested that it was the last big action movie to do that.

And, as the opening screen suggests, paying tribute as it does to French railwaymen, both living and dead, and thanking the French National Railways and the French Military for their cooperation during production, the film’s script may not be entirely true to life but what we see emphatically looks like it should be. It was shot entirely on location in France, though the key village of Rive-Reine doesn’t actually exist, and the train wrecks look utterly real because they were. In fact, not only does Frankenheimer really crash a number of real, albeit decommissioned, trains during the film, he also really blew up an entire marshalling yard. This scene is truly spectacular because it was a true spectacle. Apparently, the French authorities wanted to enlarge the gauge of the track in the yard, so were perfectly happy for Hollywood to pay for its destruction, using real dynamite and plenty of it, pretending that it’s all due to an Allied bombing raid. There’s a strafing attack on the train by a real Spitfire too that never happened but looks great anyway.

Because they couldn’t make an action movie out of red tape, the train travels a long way in this film. There’s a little of that to begin proceedings, some of it German and some of it French, but the train has to get out of Paris at some point, even with the Resistance sabotaging it at every opportunity. Ironically, the most emotional death scenes early on are of characters who weren’t planned to get theirs, or at least so quickly. Michel Simon is fantastic as a driver called Papa Boule, who’s caught sabotaging the train’s engine and is therefore machine gunned to death. It all makes complete sense and carries a great emotional impact because we like Boule immediately, and a lot more than Labiche, and wanted him to have more scenes. Well, he originally had those scenes, but also had contractual obligations elsewhere that meant he couldn’t shoot them, so Frankenheimer rewrote the part. The same happened to another supporting character we find ourselves emotionally invested in, this one played by Jacques Marin.

Figuring out how to have the train travel a great distance but not actually get very far at all, without the Nazis on board noticing, is one of the more subtle joys of this movie. It’s easy to be impressed when Frankenheimer blows up an entire marshalling yard, but it isn’t subtle. It’s easy to be impressed when he crashes a real train into another real train, both blocking and destroying all the track in a key location, but that’s not subtle. We have to pay more attention to realise that various separate cells of the French Resistance change the signs on and between stations on a carefully communicated circular route so the train can end up almost back at Paris, while the Nazis on board think they’re back in Germany. In fact, this film might be full of blatant spectacle, but it has a heck of a lot of subtlety too. One fantastic early scene has Labiche try in vain to flag down Papa Boule, then slide down a ladder from a gantry, run down the track and leap onto his moving train, all in a single shot done without a stunt double for Burt Lancaster.

There are others too. An even earlier scene shows the complex bustle in a Nazi office, the camera moving through a choreographed set of actors and extras in multiple rooms, every one of them very busy indeed, to stop on von Waldheim, an oasis of calm amongst the chaos, even though he’s here to see the general who is frustrating his plans. In fact, Scofield treats the story arc of his character as much as a mood arc as a story arc. He’s utterly calm and collected at the beginning of the film and he remains that way for a long time, but Labiche’s actions keep chipping away at his equilibrium and it eventually breaks. Watching his emotions start to flood out is fascinating to watch and he struggles to keep them in check from that point onwards, to the point when one subordinate actually asks him, “Do you want Labiche or the train?” Scofield does a lot here that’s easy to miss. The Villains Wiki points out that a “serene temper” may be a sign of PTSD, also that he wears a Wound Badge and carries one arm as if he doesn’t have full use of it.

There are details to Lancaster’s performance that deserve mention too, but they’re not all deliberate choices. There’s a scene where he rolls down a steep hillside and limps across a road to get to a train track he wants to sabotage, but that limp wasn’t prompted by the script. Lancaster had simply caught his foot in a hole while playing golf and sprained his knee badly enough that walking was a painful process. It merely prompted a new scene to be written, shot and inserted earlier to explain that limp, which was now due to being shot in the leg while running across a bridge. Perhaps the most important detail to a character, though, is the one that drives Christine, the key character I haven’t talked about yet. She’s played by Jeanne Moreau and she runs a café in Rive-Reine and she’s a patriotic Frenchwoman who’s just fed up to the back teeth with the war. Christine is a quiet heroine, who saves Labiche’s life more than once but only by saying the right untruth at the right time.

And, as much as Lancaster plays the traditional lead, the more I watched this film and the more I thought about it, the more I found that it was Christine and von Waldheim who resonated with me. There are depths to what Labiche does but there’s no real depth to him as a person. He’s a simple man doing special things at a special time because he can do them and because his simple view of the world makes his path a straightforward one. Christine is a simple girl but her reaction to the special time, even as a widow who lost her husband to the war, is to keep doing what she does. She’s no action hero. She’s the indomitable spirit of a conquered people, an epitome in one body of the entire French nation. And von Waldheim is the complex man, a cultured and sophisticated soul who can reject the irrational dogma of his Nazi party but also epitomise its sociopathy. Frankenheimer constantly compares the value of art with the value of life in this film and, if Labiche has lost sight of both, von Waldheim may never have known the latter.

I appreciated Frankenheimer casting two major actors in those two roles. Sure, Burt Lancaster was a movie star who could carry a blockbuster war picture, but Jeanne Moreau nails the quiet confidence that Christine has in an eventual victory and Paul Scofield is more than able to bring to life to such a complex character. He was already a Tony award winner when he made this, with over couple of decades of experience on the stage, starting early enough that the stage was pretty much his life. Actors born in 1922 are of an age for World War II to have shaped them. Americans like Guy Madison and Telly Savalas were nineteen when the U.S. joined the war. Brits like Paul Scofield were seventeen when Germany invaded Poland and France and the UK declared war on the Nazis. I expect most of my centennial subjects to have served. Scofield would have done, but he failed his physical, the British Army ruling him unfit for service. So he went back to training at the Croydon Repertory Theatre and lived a life on the stage, debuting in 1940.

He was an actor’s actor, beloved by directors, actors and critics who didn’t take long to compare him to Laurence Olivier. His 1948 performance as Hamlet in Stratford led to such descriptions as “the Hamlet of our generation”, though it was his 1962 King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company that may have been his pinnacle. Peter Brook, who directed him in King Lear, remembered him in his memoir as a stranger who entered the theatre, because he’d transformed himself, shrunk into a character that “now possessed him entirely”. A very different description, but one just as powerful, came from Mel Gibson, with who played Hamlet in the Franco Zeffirelli film in 1990 with Scofield as the Ghost. He compared working alongside him in a Shakespeare adaptation as akin to being “thrown into the ring with Mike Tyson”. More simply, Richard Eyre, who directed him in Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman in 1996 said that he was “not just the best there is, but the best there has ever been.”

I’ll end this review with a quote not about Paul Scofield but spoken by his character here, Franz von Waldheim. At the end, when all is lost and he faces off against Paul Labiche, he explains why in losing, he can only win because, even in death, the paintings are still his. “Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me, or a man like me.” All Scofield’s roles, in film, on television and especially on stage, are our paintings to treasure, a national heritage that will always belong to those who can see beauty and depth and an actor’s utter devotion to his art. Yet, for all that, what he valued most was his family: his actress wife, Joy Parker, to whom he was married for just shy of sixty-five years—Michael Winner saw them as “one of the few very happily married couples I’ve ever met”—and their two children. He didn’t socialise with other actors; he got off stage and onto the train home to his private life. When asked about his substantial artistic legacy, he answered, “If you have a family, that is how to be remembered.”

Paul Scofield, British Actor, Dies at 86 by Benedict Nightingale (New York Times)
Villains Fandom: Franz von Waldheim

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