July 30, 2013

Movie Review: Von Ryan's Express (1965)

You'll get your Iron Cross now, "Von" Ryan! - Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard)

Director: Mark Robson

Writers: David Westheimer (novel), Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon (screenplay)

Producer: Saul David

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Major Stars: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, James Brolin

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

One of the standard sub-genres of the war film is the “escape” film. Our heroes are captured and held by the enemy. They plan a clever breakout, thwarting the enemy’s attempt to get them back. Freedom is attained. Huzzah!

To that end there is Von Ryan’s Express. And while it isn’t in the league of The Great Escape or Stalag 17, it’s still an enjoyable romp and a really good film.

“Von” Ryan is Colonel Joseph Ryan, an American pilot shot down over Italy and sent to an Italian-run POW camp. The camp’s prisoners are led by a Brit, Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard). He’s a real hardcase engaged in disobedience towards the camp commander, a fat Italian bozo named Battaglia. Since Ryan is a colonel, he assumes command of the camp and tones down the disobedience so medical supplies and food is given to the POWs. This pisses Fincham off to no end.

Shortly thereafter, the Italian government surrenders to the Allies. The POWs hold a trial for Battaglia; Fincham wants to hang him, but Ryan orders him left in the punishment box. With the help of a sympathetic Italian officer, the POWs make for the coast and eventually, Allied lines.

Up to this point, it’s a standard escape film. Then it takes a twist; they are recaptured by the Germans. They are loaded onto a train for northern Italy, where Mussolini and the Fascists are still in control. Their wounded are shot out of hand in front of the train. And as Fincham hears their cries from the boxcar, he turns to Ryan and utters the famous phrase “You'll get your Iron Cross now, "Von" Ryan!” It looks hopeless; the train is heavily guarded and moving almost constantly.

But this doesn’t faze Ryan. He develops a scheme to seize the train and drive it through Milan and into Switzerland. The remainder of the film follows this plan with the Nazis in hot pursuit. And for the most part, it’s an enjoyable romp.

The acting isn’t top notch (it’s not like you have Holden, Preminger and Don Taylor here)* but it’s still pretty good. And the action is great. Seizing the train, bluffing their way towards Milan and the massive final battle near the Swiss border are all well-done. This isn’t surprising since the director was Mark Robson. One of his previous films was The Bridges at Toko-Ri and he’d go on to direct Lost Command, both solid war films with good battle scenes.

What I also liked about this film was its setting. Italy always gets the short end of the stick when it comes to WW2 in Europe. It was nice to see not only the entire film take place in Italy, but it also showed the ambivalence of the Italian soldiery when it came to the war. Captain Oriani (Sergio Fontani) throws in with the POWs and their escape to Switzerland. Most of the other soldiers simply go home when the Italian government surrenders. And when Ryan is first shot down, the Italian soldiers hide him from the Germans so he can go to the “easier” Italian POW camp.

Another plus about this film is the ending. It’s a rare case of the film being darker than the novel. Westheimer had Ryan surviving and making the escape with the rest of the POWs into Switzerland. Sinatra wanted a darker ending, and so in the film he gets it in the back from a Nazi just as the train makes its final push into Switzerland. Which is better? I think it was a good move (Sinatra felt it was atonement for shooting a German officer’s mistress to keep the POWs safe), although you could make the argument that unlike Toko Ri, it wasn’t right considering the overall tone of the film. And the movie ends on his death; Ryan drops and the credits roll. So that may make the ending hard for some to process.

The one fault with the rationale of this film is one common to a lot of WW2 movies; the safety of Switzerland. Getting over the Swiss border wasn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free” card; they put you internment camps. If you tried to escape, they would place you in a punishment camp that was on a par with the German POW camps. US soldiers have earned POW medals based on their time in a Swiss camp. So that tells you how much fun it was.

I’d like to see a film about what pricks the Swiss were during the war. They took and hid the money of Jewish families and kept US soldiers in POW camps. They could call it Switzerland: Nazi Suckups. Weinstein Brothers, you have my number.

So where does Von Ryan’s Express rank in the list? It’s a good film; not in the elite league of A Bridge Too Far but better than a Devil’s Brigade. Good acting and great action sequences make this a very watchable film. And if you don't like Sinatra, he dies in the end. So there's that as well.


* All actors in the aforementioned Stalag 17. Which is really, really good.


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