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Film / Von Ryan's Express

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Run, Von Ryan!

Von Ryan's Express is a 1965 World War II adventure film based on a novel by David Westheimer, directed by Mark Robson and starring Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard.

Col. Joseph Ryan (Sinatra), an American fighter pilot, is shot down over Fascist Italy and thrown in a POW Camp there, where he becomes the new ranking officer among the Allied prisoners. He soon earns the enmity of the mostly-British prisoners, who derisively nickname him "Von Ryan" for his initial concessions to the jailers, spoiling previous escape preparations in order to improve current conditions for the prisoners.

Despite proving that he's willing to both push their jailers and suffer for his beliefs, the name catches on when Ryan spares the life of the camp commander in the wake of the Italian surrender, which leads to the POWs being recaptured by the Germans, who load the survivors on a train headed for a German camp. In the shadow of the Italian Alps, Ryan and the British POWs take control of the train; trapped behind enemy lines, their only option is to pretend to still be under German control and avoid suspicion while heading for neutral Switzerland. But it's not long until the Germans are in hot pursuit.

While making the film Sinatra met his future wife Mia Farrow (29 years his junior), who was shooting the TV show Peyton Place on the same lot.

Von Ryan's Express contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Actor Allusion: Orde, who guides Ryan through a series of trap doors and secret passages, is played by John Leyton, who'd also played Willie, one of the tunnel kings in The Great Escape.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Oriani. In the novel, he is the pro-Nazi officer who abuses the prisoners and ultimately betrays them to the Germans, not Battaglia.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Battaglia.
  • Appropriated Appellation: "Von Ryan", which changes from an insult to a nickname through the film.
  • The Big Board: A German diagram showing the status of their railroad system.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Played straight. When the Italians or Germans are conversing among themselves, we get subtitles; otherwise, we depend on Captain Oriani's translations. Which are not always... exactly right. When our heroes are amidst the Italians or Germans, there are no subtitles.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The train makes it into neutral Switzerland, but Ryan and half the speaking cast die fighting the waves of Nazis approaching the final bridge.
    Fincham: (final lines) I once told you Ryan, if only one gets out, it's a victory...
  • Canon Foreigner: Gabriella, and to a lesser extent, Gortz.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Ryan and Fincham. Ryan is a self-declared "90 Day Wonder" who was drafted in to serve as an Army pilot, earning his rank of colonel due to age and education. Fincham is a major but has lived his whole life as a battlefield soldier, and obsesses over discipline and adhering to a code of behavior that Ryan can't fathom. They clash early and often over every step Ryan implements, with Ryan proved right some times and Fincham proved right (painfully so) at other times.
  • Death by Adaptation: Numerous characters but most famously Ryan himself.
  • Defiant Strip: The POWs have not had new uniforms (which they are entitled to) issued by the camp staff, despite their old ones being little more than rags and infested with lice. The prisoners burn their old uniforms and report for parade clad only in their caps and boots. After some initial blustering, the camp commandant has no choice but to issue them new uniforms.
  • Dirty Business: What war is for people like Fincham. He's able — and more than willing — to do a lot of the nasty stuff Ryan can't even think of.
  • Eye Patch Of Power: Captain Oriani.
  • Fainting: Costanzo does a very good job of impersonating von Klement, but upon returning to the train it is revealed the effort of maintaining the disguise was too much for him and he promptly faints.
  • The Film of the Book: Rather loosely adapted from David Westheimer's 1964 novel of the same name, which was even more loosely based on the author's own POW experiences.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Fincham, and Ryan on occasion.
  • Great Escape: The prisoners decide to hijack the train that is transporting them to Germany and take it to Switzerland.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The prison camp's second-in-command Oriani. His eyepatch suggests he was an Italian who's actually faced battle, and is openly courteous to the Allied prisoners. When Mussolini falls and the prisoners seize control of the camp, he switches sides and offers to help the POWs escape despite Fincham's concerns. He does.
  • The Hero Dies: Ryan himself at the end.
  • Hero Killer: Nazi officer Gortz, who relentlessly pursues the P.O.W.s for pretty much the entire finale and personally kills Ryan by shooting him in the back.
  • Honor Before Reason: Ryan shows up with a camp divided between American and British POWs. It's because Fincham insists on constant attempts to tunnel out of the camp (and is hoarding much-needed medical supplies for those attempts). Ryan, knowing that the Allies are landing in Italy as they speak and that real freedom is weeks if not days away, uses his rank to overrule Fincham.
  • Karma Houdini: The corrupt Major Battaglia. He suffers some public humiliation and a few hours in the hot box for maltreating the prisoners, but he's fat and happy after being rescued by the Germans (who are all too happy to imprison his second in command, Captain Oriani).
    • Gortz, who famously shoots Ryan in the back.
  • The Lancer: Fincham. He doesn't like it. Until Ryan dies at the end.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Gortz has a retinue of them with him at all times.
  • Naked People Are Funny: When Ryan orders the entire camp of men to strip and burn their clothes to force the corrupt commandant Battaglia to issue fresh clothes he'd been hoarding for the black market. Borders on Fan Disservice considering how many guys just don't work on their tan lines...
  • Never Trust a Trailer: All the advertisements played up the whole angle of the prisoners despising Ryan ("Who was the man they hated worse than Hitler?"), but aside from two scenes, it never really plays into the plot, and Ryan gets along with most of them decently enough. Even most of the conflict between Ryan and Finchum is of the "respectfully disagree" nature.
  • Overranked Soldier: It is a bit unbelievable that "90 Day Wonder" Ryan would be a Colonel. Lieutenant would be a lot more likely. However, this high rank was necessary for the plot to proceed.
  • POW Camp: The first part of the film is set in a POW camp in Italy. Ryan is not too concerned by his capture, as he believes that Italy is going to surrender. However, when Italy does surrender, the prisoners are rounded up and put on a train to be sent to a new camp in Germany.
  • Prison Ship: Actually a train.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Captain Oriani. As Battalia's executive officer, he's duty bound to follow orders, but at the same time is clearly opposed to and disgusted by Battaglia, is far more humane than his superior, and joins the prisoners after Italy surrenders.
    • Colonel Gortz is this as well. He's just a German officer tasked with recapturing the prisoners.
  • Punishment Box: The "hot box," an old truck.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Fincham wants to kill von Klement for the massacre of the British wounded, even though that was done by the SS and von Klement is regular German Army. He's called out on this by Costanzo.
    • There's a bit of Revenge by Proxy in Fincham's reasoning. Although he never actually admits it, it seems that since he can't actually get the ones responsible for the massacre, he's rather coldly willing to take any German he can get.
  • Shoot the Dog: Ryan killing Gabriella to keep her from alerting the Germans.
    • The SS recapturing the escaping POWs shoot the sick prisoners rather than treat them.
  • Smug Snake: Major Battaglia.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Battaglia. He committed suicide in the book.
  • Stuka Scream: During the aircraft attack in the mountain pass (by Messerschmitts, not Stuka's).
  • Train Job: A variant where the POWs hijack the train they are being transported on.
  • Translation Convention: Averted; the Italians speak Italian and the Germans speak German.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Not so wacky in this movie. They're brutal in this film.
  • Title Drop: The novel had one at the end — Ryan makes it across the border, and laughs to discover someone painted "Von Ryan's Express" on the side of the train.
  • Weapons Understudies: the three German planes that attack the Von Ryan Express at the end are Messerschmitts Bf 108, a sport and touring aircraft commonly used in war films of the period as a stand-in for its military cousin, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Their camouflage pattern however is fictional and has no resemblance to the one actually used by the Luftwaffe in the European theatre.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Ryan. This was part of the reason Sinatra insisted on Ryan dying at the end.