An American fighter pilot, Colonel Joseph Ryan, is shot down over Italy where he is imprisoned in a POW camp containing a captured British regiment during the final days of WW II. Italy surrenders, leaving the camp unguarded and the prisoners free, yet the Germans have now moved in to occupy the country. Ryan and his men are captured by the Nazis and put on a train bound for Germany. Their only chance is to take over the train and head for Switzerland and freedom. Yet with a train full of SS troops hot on their heels and a series of German checkpoints to be outwitted and maneuvered round it’s going to be easier said than done!
‘Von Ryan’s Express’ (1965) initially has a lot going against it, specifically in terms of comparison as it feels like every single WW II movie ever made rolled into one. So there’s a bit of ‘The Bridge of The River Kwai’ (British POWs suffering brutal camp conditions), a lot of ‘The Great Escape’ (escape attempts and a cooler), a dash of ‘The Train’ (there’s a train in it) and even ‘Rome: Open City’ (an Italian woman runs away and gets shot in the back). Originality will not be appearing in this feature.
It’s also not terribly stimulating visually with the POW camp and its interiors at the start looking at tad underwhelming, which doesn’t reduce the worry that this will be a reheated ‘The Great Escape’; a slice of last night’s pizza stiff from being overly microwaved the following morning.
Talking of stiff, there’s Frank Sinatra as Ryan whose performance isn’t exactly what you’d term ‘energetic’, to be generous. It’s not that his acting is wooden but more that he’s profoundly inert, like a noble gas incapable of reacting with anyone or anything else. Trevor Howard, on the other hand as the British Major Fincham, is a fizzing chunk of potassium sparking and reacting off anyone and everything with complete abandon.
In fact, ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ is worth watching alone simply to see two lead actors with wildly different styles and abilities at play together, and Howard blows Sinatra off the screen every time! So Sinatra will mumble something and look vaguely about only for Howard to reply “You’ll get your Iron Cross now, “von” Ryan” and BOOM! — Sinatra gets blasted straight through the studio walls and disappears over the horizon and into the distance. Or when Ryan dozily suggests a plan only for Howard to respond “If you crab this, the Germans won’t have to kill you; I’ll do it myself” and BANG! — Sinatra goes flying across the Italian countryside and is embedded into a distant hillside from the force of Howard’s acting blast. I was starting to get the feeling Howard knew there was no way Sinatra could match him and was doing all this on purpose to show him up but it helps keep the opening scenes in the camp fun.
Although ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ really comes into its own when they all leave the camp, are captured by Germans and put on the train. Again, nothing original is going on but the pacing picks up, the excitement starts building and the movie suddenly looks significantly better out in the Italian countryside. There’s plenty of incident and although none of it is realistic it’s all perfectly logical to the story so we, and the film, feel on secure tracks.
It’s all nicely directed too with director Mark Robson (who worked for Val Lewton which I think explains the unpretentious entertainment value here) pulling off some nice touches. There’s a moment I loved when Ryan’s express is at a station checkpoint while there’s the slowly approaching troop train behind them, a great brooding presence emitting clouds of steam as it waits and watches in the background. It was really cool.
Then there’s the German train control and monitoring offices which are so fantastical they’d look more at home in ‘Star Wars’ (1977) as carefully placed red lights, futurism and storm trooper design are all merged together. Indeed, towards the end the entire film feels like it must’ve influenced ‘Star Wars’ with a rather exciting Messerschmitt attack (they fire rockets?!) and gunfights in confined corridors and vertiginous walkways. It’s all rather fun.
The weirdest aspect of revisiting ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ however was that everything I remembered about the film from when I was a kid — the fight in the Alps, the re-laying of tracks, the plane attacks etc — and everything I thought constituted the final half hour or so of the movie actually all takes place in the final TEN MINUTES! I checked the time because I was thinking “Hang on! There’s only ten minutes to go! How are they going to do all the stuff I remember them doing in that amount of time?!”
Turns out they do do all the stuff I remembered and all in the last ten minutes which means ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ ramps up the pacing to impressively frantic levels for the climax; it was ticking along nicely as it was but this final sequence means the film finishes on a real boost. And it’s so well handled too, with the directing and editing knowing exactly what to show for it all to be exciting and make sense. It’s a really cool example of visual storytelling.
I had a lot more fun revisiting ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ than I was expecting. It isn’t a classic, is simply total escapism, it’s an example of how the Hollywood war movie was already cannibalising itself and it’s also highly derivative, but it’s entertaining for sure. It’s also one of those movies that starts off a little suspect but gets better and better as it goes along so I was glad I stuck with it. There’s also a nicely energetic score by Jerry Goldsmith, too, which helps sell the action and humour.
Worth discovering if you’ve never seen it and also holds up well against nostalgia for those who have.