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Film / The Train

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The Train is a 1964 World War II film directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, and Jeanne Moreau.

The year is 1944 and the Allies are closing in on the Nazis in Paris. German Colonel von Waldheim (Scofield), an avid admirer of great art, secures a train to transport France's greatest paintings to Germany. The French Resistance, which includes SNCF area inspector Paul Labiche (Lancaster), are determined to make sure they don't lose their greatest artistic treasures, but they have orders from London to make sure the paintings are not damaged in the process.

Not a huge hit at the time, The Train has long since been Vindicated by History, now widely regarded as "the last great black and white adventure movie" and a forerunner to films like Die Hard. It was even ranked No. 1 in Trains magazine's special issue, "The 100 Greatest Train Movies."

The Train provides examples of:

  • Answer Cut: When the art train is canceled early on:
    Von Waldheim: Who canceled my train?
    Labiche: (in the control room) I did.
  • Blatant Lies: Von Waldheim's It's All About Me attitude is shown early on when he swindles an authorization for the train with the condition that the train will be used to mobilize supplies to the Western Front (the Allies' invasion) if it is necessary; and Von Waldheim lying that the train is already en route to Germany when this request comes through (he sends it on its way right after he finishes the call).
  • Bittersweet Ending: The train is eventually derailed without damaging the art, but countless people have been killed in the quest to secure it, both Resistance Fighters and innocent civilians who were first used as hostages to stop Labiche at the climax and then killed senselessly at the end when the train is stopped. And on top of all this, The Hero Labiche may not even respect the historical and national value the art represents. John Frankenheimer believed it was more of a Downer Ending. The final shots, juxtaposing the crates full of paintings with the bodies of the murdered hostages, make it easy to agree with him: it wasn't worth it.
  • The Caper: The original plan to save the paintings was a Mission: Impossible plot two years before the series existed. Labische's cell gets in contact with rail station controllers across half the Paris-Berlin Line to disguise their stations as stations on the other half of the line, tricking the guards on board into thinking that they're travelling to Germany when they've actually turned around and are going back to Paris, at which point Labische pins the train between two wrecked engines one station away from the point where they started from, leaving it trapped in one place until the Allies arrive to retake Paris, at which point they can secure the train. The only reason why it didn't work was because the Allies decided that a Free French unit had to be first into Paris for political reasons, causing the liberation to be a few days later than expected, during which time Von Waldheim is able to clear the tracks and get the train moving again.
  • Cool Train: The train with the paintings, as well as a heavily-armored (and armed) Nazi train that appears early on.
  • Deadpan Snarker: When Major Herren comes in with a crane to get Von Waldheim's train back on the tracks, he surveys the site, looks at the derailed cars and three crashed locomotives, and says, "This is a hell of a mess you've got here, Colonel!"
  • The Determinator: Both Labiche and Von Waldheim will stop at nothing to accomplish their goals, Labiche dealing with a leg injury and Von Waldheim only accepting defeat when all of his men abandon him.
  • Dwindling Party: The reason why Labiche was originally reluctant to do the art train job was because over the course of five years of occupation, his resistance cell had gone from eighteen men to three, and with liberation apparently only days away, he didn't want to risk any more. After the mission is over, the cell is down to one man - Labiche is the Sole Survivor. Von Waldheim and his Mook Lieutenants suffer a similar fate in a way that even mirrors Labiche's friends: Captain Schmidt and Sgt. Schwartz are killed in the Rive Reinne crash minutes before Pesquet is killed trying to escape, while Lt. Pilzer is gunned down by Labiche during the nighttime painting operation moments before Didont meets a similar fate.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: A couple of other German officers that appear throughout the film proclaim their utter loathing of Von Waldheim and his obsession to get his train to Germany no matter what, because being of a higher rank and with special orders (which he swindled from the commander of the French Front), his requests to mobilize and repair the train supersede those of extremely vital supply trains for the frontline soldiers. At the very end, Major Herren also manages to see how obsessed Von Waldheim is during the latter's Villainous Breakdown — ordering the train be put back on its tracks (which is impossible) and then ordering the train's troops to take over a caravan of retreating soldiers that is passing (which would mean kick the caravan's soldiers off to free space for the art, leaving them behind to be captured or die to the Allied forces) — and ends up leading the troops' Screw This, I'm Outta Here.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Von Waldheim's first scene has him discussing the stolen art with the museum curator, coming off as intelligent, cultured and sensitive (we learn that he's preserved the art and refused to send it to Germany). Then his men show up to plunder the museum.
  • Hannibal Lecture: At the end of the film when the train is finally derailed — with the art safely intact — Labiche and von Waldheim come face to face, with Labiche armed with a submachine gun and a desire to kill clearly in his eyes. Von Waldheim calmly proceeds to chastise Labiche for not appreciating the precious art that he has spent the entire film fighting to save, even going so far as to observe that the valuable paintings, part of his national heritage, means about as much to Labiche as "a string of pearls to an ape", meaning that Labiche can never truly appreciate his own victory, while von Waldheim and others like him will always be able to appreciate the great art in ways that Labiche cannot. Labiche guns von Waldheim down anyway.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: An indirect example. Attentive viewers might notice that the submachine gun Labiche uses to kill von Waldheim at the end of the movie is the same one he took off of Sgt. Schwartz earlier in the movie, who in turn was riding with Labiche and Didont on von Waldheim's orders.
  • Human Shield: Toward the end of the movie, about thirty hostages are forced to ride on the locomotive to keep Labiche from blowing it up.
  • I Shall Taunt You: The ending when von Waldheim mocks Labiche for not understanding the value of the art he has spent the whole film fighting to secure. The original ending called for von Waldheim to engage Labiche in a shoot out, but once Paul Scofield was cast as von Waldheim it was felt that physically he would be no match for the rugged, larger than life Burt Lancaster, even if only in a gun fight, so the ending was changed to have von Waldheim criticize Labiche for not valuing his own country's national heritage represented by the art.
  • It's All About Me:
    • All von Waldheim cares about is his train with its art cargo; and any other trains no matter how important for the rest of the Nazis (like supplies for the troops on the French front) will have to wait until his own passes.
    • As well, Papa Boule only cares about "his" train — only he will run it, only he will sabotage it, he cares none about what gets in the way of his train running smoothly that he didn't have a hand on (including a plan to try to prevent it from getting blown up by Allied bombers and slowing it down) and when Labiche almost manages to convince von Waldheim to not shoot Papa Boule for sabotaging said train by reminding him that Boule drove right through the bombing without slowing down, Papa Boule insults von Waldheim and admits to being the saboteur because Labiche implies that Boule will stop being the train's engineer (and, being an "old man", probably didn't saw who did the sabotage), sealing his fate.
  • Kick the Dog: The Nazis do a lot of this — well, they are Nazis, after all. It starts with executing Papa Boule and culminates with shooting the hostages.
  • The Men First: Labiche points it out clearly on his Establishing Character Moment: as much as it will paint him as a jerk to the rest of the Resistance, he will not put more value on the art over that of human lives (he actually suggests just blowing up everything and accept the fact that at least the Nazis didn't got it). When he's finally convinced to perform the mission, the fact that almost everybody that helps him dies and probably only he will mourn them really pisses him off. This is an obvious contrast to von Waldheim.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Several, particularly Lt. Pilzer and Sgt. Schwartz. Captain Schmidt gets a particularly bad wake-up call, too.
  • Nazi Gold: The plot revolves around preventing the art from becoming this rather than finding it.
  • Nazi Nobleman: Colonel von Waldheim is not explicitly stated to have a title, but the "von" in his name, along with his demeanor and taste in art, suggest that he comes from an upper-class background.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Burt Lancaster sounds as New York as ever as the French Labiche, reportedly because he was "tone deaf" when it came to accents. Paul Scofield as von Waldheim makes a respectable stab at a German accent, though he's unlikely to be mistaken for a native speaker.
  • One Last Job: As the liberation of Paris is expected any day, the resistance fighters all expect this to be their last major job of the war. This leads to Retirony for Pesquet and Didont.
  • Only Sane Man: Major Herren, who tries to make von Waldheim keep perspective of his mission (especially in the final scenes).
  • Rail-Car Separation: Resistance members uncouple the cars on a train full of stolen artwork while they are in motion and stage a series of crashes to prevent the Germans from simply replacing the locomotive and keep the cars stuck in one location.
  • Refusal of the Call: Labiche at first says he won't risk lives for paintings.
  • La Résistance: Most of the main characters.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Burt Lancaster sprained a knee playing golf, so a scene in which Labiche takes a bullet in the leg was thrown in to cover for his limp. And Papa Boule was executed early (instead of at the final confrontation) because Michel Simon's prior contract obligations prevented him from completing the film.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Labiche is motivated more by a desire to avenge the death of one of his oldest and dearest comrades than he is to reclaim and protect the train's art.
  • Sarcastic Confession: When Christine is hiding Labiche in the wine cellar of her hotel, the Germans come asking where he is.
    Christine: Yes, I see him every day, and General de Gaulle too. They're my best customers, and I keep them cool in the wine cellar.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: When Labiche finally manages to derail the train and there is absolutely no way to get it back moving (no matter how much von Waldheim orders it), the troops on the train (led by Herren) finally notice how obsessed von Waldheim is and call it quits, boarding a convoy of troops that are retreating from the Allies' march and outright refusing von Waldheim's orders to move the art to the trucks (which would require them to kick out said troops).
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Papa Boule's trick with the franc pieces in the oil lines of the locomotive is a real World War II sabotage method.
    • Labiche handling the repair of the burned-out rod bearing (sabotaged by Papa Boule), as he pours the molten Babbitt metal, breaks down the mold and clears away the casting flash, and after reassembling the bearing takes the rod from the overhead crane grab and manhandles it to the locomotive for reinstallation. In the DVD commentary, John Frankenheimer confirms that Burt Lancaster learned how to make this repair for real... and he also learned how to operate a steam train and how to wire up plastic explosives.
    • The specific whistle sequences used to signal the switch tower when passing through the train yard at night were quite true to life.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Von Waldheim finishes his "The Reason You Suck" Speech to Labiche by asking him if he even understands what he's fighting for, believing that he doesn't cares about the art. Von Waldheim is right on that aspect: Labiche just turns around to look at the dead French hostages for a couple of seconds before turning back and emptying his machine gun on Von Waldheim.
  • Spy Speak: "Tell Jacques the cheese is on the train, and to save a piece for Pierre and Raoul."
  • Suicide by Cop: The fate of Colonel Von Waldheim.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Von Waldheim delivers a telling one to Labiche, who has no reply other than to just shoot him.
  • Train Job: Multiple attempts to derail, reroute, slow down and mark the train for Allied forces (so they won't blow it sky-high and destroy the art) occur throughout the film.
  • Trash the Set: A rail station that was already decommissioned in Real Life gets blown sky-high in an Allied bombardment about halfway through (lots of explosives were buried alongside and beneath the train tracks for the pyrotechnic effects). Papa Boulle shows that nobody will stop "his train" without his say-so by rolling it straight through all that hell without slowing down.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Papa Boule, the old train engineer and apparent Parental Substitute whom Labiche tries to save from being killed by the Nazis for sabotage. Labiche almost had it, but the moment he implied that Boule wasn't going to man the train again, Papa Boule insulted von Waldheim and exposed himself as a saboteur out of sheer pride and spite.
  • Vehicle Title: The titular train being an attempt by Nazis to transport stolen art.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The movie is based on the book Le Front de l'art by Rose Valland.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Col. von Waldheim becomes increasingly crazed and obsessed as the movie progresses. The camera is knocked into dutch angles when he finally totally loses it.
  • Wicked Cultured: Von Waldheim. Considering he is a Nazi, the emphasis is obviously on "wicked".
  • Would Hurt a Child: Pilzer, who shoots the young boy Resistance member (although to be fair to Pilzer, it was dark and it's doubtful either he or von Waldheim knew it was a child).