Actors today cannot really get away with playing foreign characters and not using the appropriate accent. That was not so in the past when performers were hired for other qualities –perhaps box office draw or other ability to fill the role– besides their vocal skills. The Train is one such example, in which Burt Lancaster is the only player with an American accent in a cast composed of French and German actors and characters, many of whom had their dialogue post-synched. Truth be told, however, Lancaster’s lack of effort in this area does nothing to detract from this otherwise impactful and thrilling picture.
Lancaster is Labiche, the Frenchman in charge of rail line that runs near Paris during the tail end of Germany’s occupation there. The plot is driven by one German officer’s desire to remove many valuable paintings from a French museum and have them shipped to Germany. This art, considered the heritage of France, includes all the greats: Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin –you name it, it’s there. Seeing as the Allied forces are set to hit Paris any day and the Germans are in the process of retreat, it is this Col. von Waldheim’s (Paul Scofield) intent to get the art on the soonest train possible, a plan that is hindered when Labiche cancels his train to prioritize another. After much negotiating, von Waldheim manages to get another train procured for his art.
Meanwhile, the curator of the source museum is talking with Labiche and other French rebels working the rail lines about having the train sabotaged to prevent the paintings’ leaving the country. Several people die as Labiche and his two cronies execute a complex, spur-of-the-moment diversion of the train away from Germany and back to where the Allies are expected to come rescue the operation.
It is a rather simplistic explanation of a film based on real events that endures more than two hours and has more twists and turns than can be counted. It is also packed with explosions and train crashes, all of which were really conducted as Director John Frankenheimer sought the most realistic film possible.
The Train is full of beautiful deep-focus shots, complex tracking shots and suggestive camera focuses. The most poignant visual comes at the film’s close when the editing juxtaposes newly shot bodies strewn beside the railroad with those of the coffin-like crates holding the paintings, each marked with the name of the now-dead artist. This moment clearly asks the question posed by characters throughout the film: Are the paintings worth the lives lost to save them?