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John Frankenheimer's The Train

by Stephen B. Armstrong

Stephen B. Armstrong is a professor of English at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. His article on Welles' Touch of Evil appears in Film Noir Reader 4 and his reviews have been featured in Film Quarterly and Film Score Monthly.

Late in the summer of 1963, Burt Lancaster was in Europe working on The Train, a period film about World War Two and the French Resistance. Two weeks into production, however, Lancaster had Arthur Penn, the picture’s first director, fired. He then recruited John Frankenheimer, with whom he’d worked on projects like The Young Savages (1961) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). “Burt called me and asked if I would come to direct it. I’d just finished Seven Days in May [another Frankenheimer-Lancaster collaboration], I was quite tired,” Frankenheimer once told Gerald Pratley in an interview. (1) “I didn’t want to do it, yet he asked me to do it as a favor to him. And also, I wanted to go to Europe.” He arrived in France several days later.

Although much of The Train was shot in the cold autumn of 1964, the film’s story takes place in August, 1944, during the last weeks of the German Occupation of France. As the Allies march to Paris, Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) decides to empty a museum of its priceless paintings, which he hopes to transport to Germany by train. Alarmed by this, Madame Villard (Suzanne Flon), the museum’s curator, contacts Lebiche (Lancaster), a railroad official who heads a small group of resistants. Lebiche, though, refuses to use his men to stop the delivery on the grounds that it is too dangerous; and he assigns Papa Boule (Michel Simon), an old engineer, to drive the “art train” into Germany. Boule, however, sabotages the train, and von Waldheim has him executed. After the colonel orders Lebiche to replace the old man, the railway official departs with his colleagues Didont (Albert Rémy) and Pesquet (Charles Millon), who persuade him to save the paintings. Instead of completing the run to Germany, Lebiche turns the train back toward Paris, crashes it and flees; a hotel concierge (Jeanne Moreau) reluctantly provides him with a place to hide. Enraged by these events, von Waldheim orders his soldiers to execute several railroad workers. Later, when the train is once again running, the colonel kidnaps other workers and starts back for the border. Lebiche comes out of hiding and destroys the railroad tracks, forcing the train to derail. Exasperated, the colonel commands his men to unload the crated paintings and shoot the hostages. On the road above the railway, a convoy of retreating German troops appears, but the colonel refuses to join them. Lebiche shows up moments later. Disgusted by the sight of the hostages, he turns his gun on the colonel and kills him.

The Train ’s scenario is based on events that actually occurred during the last month of the Nazi Occupation, when Paris railroad workers saved the Musée du Jeu de Paume’s collection of modern art. Frankenheimer—and Franklin Cohen and Frank Davis, the film’s writers—invented several action sequences, however, in order to increase the story’s dramatic impact. These scenes, in which irregular combatants use sabotage and cunning to frustrate the German army, link The Train with a number of other war pictures that were made in the early sixties, including The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) and The Great Escape (1963). But unlike these films, The Train does not idealize its heroes. In fact, it does something quite different by establishing likenesses between the film’s French protagonists and their German adversaries.

Consider the Lebiche character. As the film opens, he appears to be a calm and restrained, almost mild person. When Madame Villard comes to him for help, he insists upon putting the welfare of others first, arguing that no work of art is worth a human life. “This morning we had four men left in this group,” he says. “Now we are three. One, two, three….We started with 18. Like your paintings, Mademoiselle, I couldn’t replace them. For certain things, we take the risk, but I won’t waste lives on paintings.” But once he commits himself to the project of keeping the paintings in France, Lebiche’s hard boiled aloofness, his ability to act without emotion, starts to disappear. And after he loses his friends to von Waldheim’s firing squads, his desire to thwart the colonel grows increasingly obsessive, while his behavior, inspired more by revenge than patriotism, grows increasingly violent, reaching an apogee of sorts with the execution of von Waldheim. This crime parallels those of the colonel and his soldiers, the ones who turned their guns on similarly defenseless men. And it shows us that in spite of his anti-fascist beliefs, Lebiche is capable of the same murderous behavior that characterizes his Nazi counterparts.

Christine’s views and actions are contradictory and unattractive, as well. She tells Lebiche, for instance, that the preservation of life during war is an imperative, and that he has behaved recklessly. “Do you want everyone killed?” she complains. “Maybe you think you’re a hero. Maybe you don’t care if you live. What right have you to do this?” But Christine’s pacifism is more opportunistic than humanitarian. She is a collaborator of sorts, a person who rents rooms and serves meals to German soldiers. Cooperation with the enemy, she argues, not only spares lives, it helps business. After some soldiers knock down a door in her hotel, she tells Lebiche:

Christine: You think you can just make trouble? I run a hotel, not a madhouse. Who’s going to pay for the lock and door? Do you think money grows on trees?

Lebiche: There’s a war.

Christine: You talk about the war. I’ll talk about what it costs.

Lebiche: I’ll be leaving in a few hours. You can go back to your good customers.

Christine: They pay. That’s what I’m in business for.

Lebiche: You should be paid.

Arguably, Christine’s willingness to place financial security before other values not only parallels von Waldheim’s decision to sell the paintings he loves, it also reminds us that resistance to the German presence during the Occupation was not ubiquitous. Cooperation occurred quite frequently, in fact, and it did not always save lives. As Frankenheimer explains on the commentary track that accompanies the DVD release of The Train, “More Jews were turned in by concierges than any other group.”

Interestingly, the film never refers directly to France’s participation in the Final Solution, despite the fact that the last trainload of Jews deported to Auschwitz left Paris on August 17, 1944—a week before the Liberation. (2) The grainy black and white photography used to capture the pile of dead hostages that line the railway at the end of the film, however, recalls the grim footage which appears in documentaries like George Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps (1945) and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955). Von Waldheim, of course, bears the ultimate responsibility for this horror; and throughout most of the film, Frankenheimer focuses relentlessly on the officer’s moral and ethical shortcomings. But in the sequence that introduces the colonel, the director shows us that he possesses some traits which are almost admirable.

When he enters the museum and stares at the paintings, for instance, the colonel’s stern face softens with affection. He may serve Hitler’s interests, we see, but he has good taste. Moreover, his interest in art has prompted him to reject some aspects of Nazi ideology. As he stands before a Gaugin painting, Madame Villard, his admirer, approaches him.

Von Waldheim: Do you like it?

Villard: Need you ask?

Von Waldheim: This is degenerate art, you know. As a loyal officer of the Third Reich, I should detest it. I’ve often wondered at the curious conceit…that would attempt to determine tastes and ideas by decree.

Villard: Many times over the past four years I have wanted to thank you.

Von Waldheim: For not being what you expected?

Villard: For saving all of this, protecting it.

But the colonel, we soon discover, is just as contradictory as the other characters in this film. Though he loves these paintings, he is willing to exploit their valuableness. As he explains to a superior officer who disapproves of the art train adventure, “Might it be unwise to leave a billion gold Reichmarks in the Bank of France? Enough money to equip ten Panzer Divisions?....Money is a weapon. The contents of that train are as negotiable as gold.” Once von Waldheim decides to steal the paintings, however, the few traces of goodness in him evaporate; and like Lebiche, he grows increasingly obsessed with his goal and behaves with escalating recklessness as the film progresses. His desire to hold on to the paintings so consumes him that he even becomes willing to sacrifice the lives of his own soldiers. Late in the movie, for example, after the train jumps the tracks, the colonel confronts one of the officers who leads the retreating convoy.

Von Waldheim: I need your trucks, Major—all of them. I have a cargo to be delivered to Germany. It is of vital importance.

Major: There’s a French armored division just over that hill. What about my men?

Von Waldheim: I don’t care about your men! I order you to unload those trucks!

Major: Save your orders, Colonel. In this sector, the war is over.

Colonel: I’ll have you shot!....Herren, shoot that man!

This attitude, we should note, is not unique to von Waldheim. Madame Villard, when she confronts Lebiche early in the picture, expresses the same sentiment, albeit more mildly:

Lebiche: I won’t waste lives on paintings.

Villard: They wouldn’t be wasted.

That a French woman and a Nazi officer should sound so much alike reminds us that certain points of view transcend nationality and political allegiance. Ironically, Renoir made an analogous claim in Grande Illusion (1937), in which French and German foes also share much in common. For Renoir, though, these similarities affirm the basic goodness of mankind. For Frankenheimer, they suggest the opposite; and this refusal to gild and sentimentalize the conduct of people living under occupation lends The Train a degree of authenticity other “resistance” pictures, such as Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943) and Clement’s Battle of the Rails (1946) lack. At the same time, this tendency to blur the lines between enemies anticipates Battle of Algiers (1965), another “war” picture in which insurgents and the authorities they wish to drive from their country share the same brutal disregard for human life. In Pontecorvo’s docudrama, however, the French assume the role played by the Germans in Frankenheimer’s film. Frankenheimer often cited Battle of Algiers, by the way, as one of his favorites. Much like The Train, it broods over, and ultimately condemns, the ruinous effect that political repression has upon the human spirit.


1. Gerald Pratley, The Films of Frankenheimer: Forty Years in Film. (Bethlehem: Lehigh UP, 1998), p. 52.

2. See Ian Outsby, Occupation. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 1998), p.17.


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