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When Is It Leaving? Where Is It Going?
by Jon Schuller

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It's pretty obvious that wars change everything and not in good ways. Destruction is total and deaths in the multi-millions are final. To find hope and good amidst chaos; to find heroes willing to risk everything to fight evil; and to have the small acts of heroism recorded for posterity, so they'll be recognized and remembered - all are rare events. But they do happen.
France was invaded by the German Army in May, 1940 and there was small hope of resistance to the overwhelming power and destruction the Wehrmacht was proud to show off. The French became quickly resigned to their obvious fate, but it wasn't long before secret voices and determined forces were willing to risk life and limb to resist, and even, destroy the German war machine. Their bravery was only overshadowed by their audacity.

The Germans systematically looted great works of art from every country they invaded and sent them back to Germany. It was an obsession of Hitler to destroy these countries' independence and cultures. France, of course, being a large pillar in the foundation of so much art in history, was a ripe target. Sculptures, books and paintings by the great masters were all rounded up and placed in shipping containers. Getting them to Germany was simple: the French railroad system was large and sophisticated and trains ran to all European countries.

In 1944, the invasion of
France has become a reality as the Allies, sending out false messages and convincing the Germans that the Pas de Calais will be the landing zone. The Wehrmacht is obsessed about where and when. Meanwhile, Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has been put in charge of getting out as many priceless paintings as possible and sending them to Germany. The Resistance hatches a plan to delay this from happening. 1965's The Train tells the story: A French railroad inspector, Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a member of the Resistance, says it's too dangerous and valuable friends' lives will be lost for a few paintings. But he does lose an old friend, Papa Boule (Michel Simon), an old and grumpy engineer, as he tries to sabotage a train with a load of paintings and is shot. Labiche decides to help his Resistance comrades and stop the paintings from being stolen at all costs.

Two of friends, Didont (Albert Remy) and Pesquet (Charles Millot), devise an elaborate scheme to re-route the paintings train, changing station and route signs to fool the Germans into thinking they're headed for Germany when they're actually traveling in a circle back to France. As the train heads back, the men arrange for two large collisions in Rive-Reine to derail the train and tear up the tracks. Colonel Von Waldheim is very angry and vows to shoot any and all Resistance members who try to thwart his
efforts. Labiche is wounded and escapes to a small rooming house run by a widow, Christine (Jeanne Moreau) who is sympathetic and cares about Labiche. She agrees to hide him at her own peril.
The Resistance receives word that the Allies will bomb the railroad station but will spare the train if the first three cars' roofs are painted white. Colonel Von Waldheim discovers the plot and has several more resistance fighters shot as he orders the train to move out despite the air attacks. Labiche, wounded and almost alone, will do all he can to stop the train.

Labiche gets ahead of the slow-moving train, loaded with French hostages on the locomotive, and removes bolts and plates that hold the rails in place before his work is discovered by a German scouting group. Eventually he does it, the rails are loosened and the train is stopped permanently. VonWaldheim goes crazy, tries to stop a retreating German Army truck convoy to get the paintings off the train and on to the trucks. Major Herren (Wolfgang Preiss) convinces the Colonel that the mission is lost and he orders all the soldiers from the train to the waiting convoy, retreating back to Germany from the advancing Allies. They cold-bloodedly kill the French hostages and leave them lying near the railroad tracks. VonWaldheim tells the Major to go; he'll be along shortly with another retreating convoy.

Labiche, limping,
holding a sub-machine gun, appears as the Colonel is inspecting the numerous crates in and out of the railroad cars. The Colonel lectures Labiche that only a man of taste and breeding like the Colonel can appreciate the priceless works of art.; that Labiche will never be smart or sophisticated enough to do that. Labiche, too, looks at the crates with famous names on them; then at the dead Frenchmen, killed by this same "sophisticated" German officer. He levels the gun and shoots the Colonel. The film fades as we see the boxes again.

John Frankenheimer directed The Train and added more action to it than was originally imagined, based on the real-life events in 1944. Shot in black-and-white which gave the film realism and the sense that a lot more was at stake than just paintings. The train wrecks were real and the destruction significant. Burt Lancaster did his own stunts. The French endured over 4 years of German occupation and disgrace. France was able to get back some of its honor as it saved the precious works of art from kidnapping and probable destruction by the retreating Germans. Real French trains and locations maintained the authenticity of events and the actors were honest and played their parts well. To be able to see history come alive in a modern movie setting is always exciting. The Train carries on a great film tradition for telling a story succinctly and honestly.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Sitzen machen!

50 Years of Marriage and Movies

The Best Christmas Carol Redux

I'd Forgotten About That Completely

He's a Spy? Yeah. Right.

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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