“It carried them to the peak of glory…It will carry you to the peak of adventure!” That opening day copy for the full-page ad heralding the New York premiere of director John Frankenheimer’s World War II action saga The Train (1964) 53 years ago today may not in hindsight score points for truth in advertising, given the cost in lives depicted in the on-screen spectacle of production craft and harrowing logistics finely tooled for fans of action and historical recreation, as well as Burt Lancaster in a heroic and kinetic role for which he was most beloved, though the actor would defiantly prove time and again, it was only one gear in this iconic star’s multipronged wheelhouse. Over time, The Train, the true events-inspired but ultimately fictionalized tale of the French Underground’s retaliatory efforts to stop a locomotive carrying pillaged priceless national art treasures out of the country and back to Germany under the orders of a cruelly elitist Nazi colonel exquisitely played by Paul Scofield, became recognized not only for its explosive and dynamic action sequences but also for the questions it raised – and never fully answered, by design – about the value of timeless art weighed against human sacrifice. It is stubbornly stunning in depicting the waste of war, the grimness of enemy occupation, and the black hole of terrorism-fueled outrage. But despite “peaks of adventure,” they are clouded by soot and don’t resonate with glory.
Lancaster, playing the railway supervisor reluctantly drafted into the train-sabotage mission, seemed to recognize that. In a surprisingly unadmiring passage from her detailed 2000 Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Kate Buford writes: “Lancaster’s Labiche was not a great performance – squint-eyed, Gauloise-smoking, his idea of the stoic, art-ignorant Resistance man is one of his stiff pretendings – but it is a great piece of cinema. For all his intellectual and artistic aspirations, Lancaster was the product of a laboring people. Holding on to the movie with his bare hands, he makes it an artifact that will last. ‘He is a contemporary Sisyphus,’ wrote Brendan Gill in The New Yorker of his performance, ‘but he is not resigned, and in a contest between him and any boulder, we are encouraged to suspect that it is the boulder that will crumble first.’ As he chases the train, he is chasing life itself.” Two days later, the nearly full-page Friday weekend ad was full of critics quotes applauding the pictorial awesomeness of its machinery, exemplified by The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther exhorting “YOU MUST SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THAT TRAIN – A REAL ONE – IS REALLY HIT! A BEAUTIFUL, HISSING TANGLE!” and his New York Daily News counterpart Kate Cameron proclaiming “FIVE LOCOMOTIVES BLOWN TO SMITHEREENS AND TWO ENGINES COLLIDE WITH A TREMENDOUS BANG, SENDING FIREWORKS INTO THE SKY!” Saturday Review scribe Arthur Knight’s two blurbs blurred the lines between people and hardware: “STRAFED AND PURSUED, THE ENGINE BECOMES CURIOUSLY HUMAN. ENORMOUS ENERGIES ARE UNLEASHED AND A MODERN JUGGERNAUT ROLLS INVINCIBLY!” and “TO STOP A TRAIN OR ALTER ITS COURSE REQUIRE FEATS OF SUPERHUMAN SKILL AND DARING. THE MAN WHO ELECTS TO PIT HIMSELF AGAINST A RAILROAD BECOMES A SUPER-HERO. LANCASTER [IS THE] ONLY AMERICAN STAR BOTH PHYSICALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY ENDOWED TO PLAY [THE] RAILROAD MAN. FRANKENHEIMER MAKES WONDROUS USE OF CAMERA. SWEEPS ALONG TO EVER-MOUNTING TENSION!” Thus, the film was so well cast (Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon, Suzanne Flon and Wolfgang Priess also make strong impressions), photographed (by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz), edited (by David Bretherton) and ultimately engineered by Frankenheimer that there would be sufficient glory in the enterprise, fueled by reviewer enthusiasm of the kind cited above, even if not in the story realized on screen. But then again, when turning to the movie’s poster one learns: “They bombed it. Sabotaged it. Cursed the train! It carried their tears, their hopes, their nation’s honor!” Truth or hyperbole, wouldn’t you ride anyway? You can for the reasonable price of Twilight Time’s stunning, full-head-of-steam hi-def Blu-ray.