Sunday, December 14, 2008

Running This Train Now

I guess I have to admit it, I haven’t really been feeling it lately. Stuff going on in my life, long days at work, though I’ve made sure to keep some films mixed in there. They included a midnight screening of PHASE IV at the New Beverly—fascinating and I’m still amazed at how crowded it was but by a certain point in trying to write something I had to admit that I wasn’t sure what to say about it. In some ways, I just wanted to let it sit in my head. I also saw the remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL which no one with any intelligence cares about and rightly so and I was there on opening day for GRAN TORINO which I loved—I’m well aware of things in the movie that people will have issues with but I don’t really want to get into it. I’ve also been tagged for a few of those memes out there but haven’t done those either. I’ll get to them in the future. Or I won’t. I don’t really know. For now, I need to splash some cold water on my face and try to figure out if I actually know how to write.

Playing behind me right now as I write this is VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, an exciting World War II adventure from 1965 starring Frank Sinatra. Frank plays Col. Joseph Ryan, shot down in Italy in 1943 and is taken to an Italian POW camp. Though it is largely populated by British soldiers, Ryan is technically the highest ranking soldier and soon after he arrives begins to clash with Major Fincham (Trevor Howard), the highest ranking Brit. Things are made worse when Ryan tries to barter for rations with camp head Battaglia (Adolfo Celi of THUNDERBALL and DANGER: DIABOLIK) and is double-crossed, leading to relations between Ryan and Fincham getting worse and Ryan receiving the nickname “Von Ryan” from those who are beginning to despise them. When word comes that the Italians have surrendered, leaving the camp essentially unguarded, the soldiers head off into the Italian woods, but the conflict between Ryan and Fincham, not to mention the continuing onslaught of Germans, has just begun.

Not much of it is worth taking seriously, but it is fun. It’s very much part of the GREAT ESCAPE formula of these films. Of course it doesn’t measure up, but few films of any kind measure up to THE GREAT ESCAPE anyway. With a screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon from the novel by David Westheimer, it’s still fast-moving with new elements continually popping up to keep things engaging, particularly some good action in the second half. Plus, it turns into a full-on train movie as the allies commandeer it to attempt to cross the border--there’s some impressive stunts centered around that train and I’m always a sucker for a good train movie. If there’s a problem with VON RYAN’S EXPRESS is that too much of it feels haphazardly assembled with a director (Mark Robson) who seems to have been more interested in getting the scenes on film than making sure that it all flowed together seamlessly. The DVD audio commentary contains several people including THE LIMEY screenwriter Lem Dobbs, present as a war film buff, who makes the correct comment that the prison camp section that opens the film (shot in L.A. on the Fox lot) winds up feeling like a different film than what follows (shot in Europe) with certain actors not even seeming to appear again once the location changes. It’s almost as if it’s a completely different war movie that just happens to star some of the same actors. The emphasis is often more on the scenery and the jaunty aspect of it, with some unexpected comedy shoehorned in. When the British army chaplain who speaks German needs to dress up as a Nazi to get the good guys through a checkpoint, he shouts, “I won’t do it. Absolutely not!” Of course, that’s when we cut to him in full costume as he rehearses “Heil Hitler!” One element that adds to the realism, which might not be as evident otherwise, is the surprising amount of subtitled dialogue we get in Italian and German. What are the earliest examples of Hollywood movies having so many subtitles, anyway?

Sinatra gets a great introduction, setting us up for a great character that we never quite get. Trying to guess his own interest in the project based on what he does onscreen, it seems to fall in between THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and the Tony Rome movies, which is pretty much how you can describe the entire film as well. With the character of Ryan kind of a more proactive Steve McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE with an entire film focused on him, it is interesting how unsympathetic he’s allowed to be at times and there are some good conflict developed between him and Trevor Howard. A few of his best moments are also when he has to impersonate a German soldier, clearly not knowing the language, but by a certain point he just fades into the scenery with everyone else, given little to do but shout lines like, “Can’t this damn thing go any faster?” It makes me wonder if maybe he insisted on that, figuring that all of his real work had already happened by that point. Sinatra is given the heaviest dramatic moment of the entire film, but most of what we get out of it is what we infer of Sinatra at that point than anything he actually does onscreen in response to it. Is this a case of any actor with the confidence to let us project onto him or an actor who doesn’t want to do any more than is necessary? Trevor Howard and Edward Mulhare (more or less the comic relief as the fainting chaplain) are both very good, able to develop full characterizations independent of Sinatra and a young James Brolin makes an early appearance during the prison camp section. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith and it’s pretty good, though there’s no getting around that it can’t possibly top Elmer Bernstein’s music for THE GREAT ESCAPE. Strangely, to my ears a few musical phrases anticipate his score to PLANET OF THE APES a few years later, only done in a more traditionally symphonic way. There are always interesting things to discover within Jerry Goldsmith’s music.

There’s also an ending that is probably one of those things that somebody remembers about a movie years after seeing it (no spoilers here). It works pretty well, considering what’s come before it and gives the movie more weight than it would otherwise have. VON RYAN’S EXPRESS is no classic but if you find yourself digging beyond the famous war titles it’s a good one to catch up to. Now I just have to hope that splashing that cold water on my face actually does some good. We’ll see.


Anonymous said...

Von Ryan's Express makes a pretty good double bill together with Frankenheimer's The Train!

Just to see how superior the latter is to the former - and entertaining they are both!

And I love your comment about Goldsmith's music! He certainly was one of the best film composers of the 20th century.


Arbogast said...

Run faster, Ryan, run faster!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I was gonna mention THE TRAIN...and then totally forgot about it! Now I'm gonna have to see it again. It's been a long time and I remember thinking it was pretty great. And yes, Goldsmith was absolutely one of the very best!