Train, The (1965): Frankenheimer’s Oscar-Nominated War Thriller, Starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield

John Frankenheimer directed this suspense thriller, written by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, and Walter Bernstein, loosely based on the non-fiction book Le front de l’art by Rose Valland, who documented the works of art placed in storage that had been looted by the Germans from museums and private collections.

Set in 1944, the tale centers on the conflict between French Resistance-member Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and German Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), who is trying to move stolen art masterpieces to Germany.

Inspiration for the train’s interception came from the real-life events of train No. 40,044, seized and examined by Lt. Alexandre Rosenberg of the Free French forces.

In August 1944, masterpieces of modern art stolen by the Wehrmacht are shipped to Germany. The officer in charge of operation, Colonel Franz von Waldheim, is determined to take the paintings to Germany, regardless of cost. After the works are removed from the Jeu de Paume Museum, curator Mademoiselle Villard seeks help from the French Resistance.

Given the Allies imminent liberation of Paris, they need only delay the train for a few days, but it’s a dangerous operation and must be done delicately, or else risk damaging the priceless cargo.

Resistance cell leader and SNCF area inspector Paul Labiche initially rejects the plan, telling Mlle. Villard and senior Resistance leader Spinet, “I won’t waste lives on paintings.”  However, he changes his mind after the elderly engineer Papa Boule is executed for trying to sabotage the train.

Labiche joins his Resistance teammates Didont and Pesquet, who have their own plan to stop the train.  They devise an elaborate ruse to reroute the train, changing railway station signage to make it appear to the German escort as if they are heading to Germany when they have actually turned back toward Paris. They then arrange a double collision in the small town of Rive-Reine that will block the train without risking the cargo.

Labiche, although shot in the leg, escapes on foot with the help of the widowed owner of a Rive-Reine hotel Christine, while other Resistance members involved are executed.

Labiche and Didont meet Spinet, along with young Robert (the nephew of Jacques, the executed Rive-Reine station master), planning to paint the tops of three wagons white to prevent Allied aircraft from bombing the train. Robert recruits railroad workers and friends of his Uncle Jacques from Montmirail, but the attempt is discovered, and Robert and Didont are killed.

Working alone, Labiche continues to delay the train after the tracks are cleared. He manages to derail the train without endangering civilian hostages that the colonel has placed on the locomotive to prevent it from being blown up. Von Waldheim flags down a retreating army convoy, while a French armored division is not far behind.

The colonel orders the train unloaded and attempts to commandeer the trucks, but the officer in charge refuses to obey his orders. The train’s German contingent kills the hostages and joins the retreating convoy.

Von Waldheim remains behind with the abandoned train. Crates are strewn everywhere between the track and the road, labelled with the names of famous artists. Labiche appears and the colonel castigates him for having no real interest in the art he has saved:  Does it please you, Labiche? You feel a sense of excitement at just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing or why…. You are nothing Labiche, a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me, or a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn’t tell me why you did what you did.

Labiche looks at the murdered hostages, and then, without a word, he turns back to von Waldheim and shoots him. Afterwards he limps away, leaving behind the corpses and art treasures.

Frankenheimer was not the original director assigned to this project. Arthur Penn, fresh off of his success with The Miracle Worker, for which both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscar Awards (Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively), began shooting in France, but he was soon fired by star Burt Lancaster.

He effectively made some conditions before coming on board.  He demanded that his name become part of the title, John Frankenheimer’s The Train; that the French co-director, required by French tax laws, should not be on the set; and most important of all, to be granted final cut on the film (a side benefit was a Ferrari present).

The first thing he did was to get rid of the overlong and overwrought script. He then began shooting in Normandy, despite it tough and unpredictable weather, while the writers remained in Paris.

The film contains multiple real train wrecks. The Allied bombing of a rail yard was accomplished with real dynamite, as the French rail authority needed to enlarge the track gauge.

After principal photography, he realized that another action scene was needed in the film’s first third and so reassembled some of the cast for the Spitfire attack scene.

Burt Lancaster as Labiche
Paul Scofield as Colonel von Waldheim
Jeanne Moreau as Christine
Suzanne Flon as Miss Villard
Michel Simon as Papa Boule
Wolfgang Preiss as Major Herren
Albert Rémy as Didont
Charles Millot as Pesquet
Jean Bouchard as Hauptmann Schmidt

Oscar Context:

Many critics considered the script to be the picture’s major problem, but it was nonetheless nominated for the Oscar.