An anomaly or variation on the prison escape movie made perennially popular throughout the 1950s and 60s, Mark Robson’s Von Ryan’s Express (1965) is undeniably a highlight in Frank Sinatra’s movie career. Novelist David Westheimer had spent several years in a concentration camp during the war, emerging from the ordeal as one of the most eloquent writers of his generation. His early works dealt with variations on his own prisoner of war experiences. For obvious reasons these articulations were to take on a rather raw clarity. However, they remained truer to life than fiction – a perceived shortcoming of the novel that 2oth Century-Fox sought to remedy by assigning screenwriter, Wendell Mayes to rework the material in more cinematic terms.
After Frank Sinatra came on board, screenwriter Joseph Landon was also brought in for the sole purpose of rewriting all of Ryan’s dialogue to mimic Sinatra’s inimitable way with a line. In theory at least, the novel had all the markings of an adventure classic; a staunch yet sympathetic hero, harrowing bouts of conflict, a daring escape strategy unlike any other put forth, and a guaranteed box office villain in the Nazi high command.
Frank Sinatra passionately campaigned for the role of Col. Joseph L. Ryan, the downed American pilot who is conflicted by the difficult choices he must make in order to save many lives. At his very core Ryan is an idealist, an Achilles heel that will be his undoing, though curiously not so much in the novel. It was Sinatra who suggested a change to Westheimer’s more optimistic ending. In the book, after some daring maneuvers Ryan escapes with his contemporaries to freedom aboard a hijacked train. The filmic Ryan is not nearly as lucky.
Von Ryan’s Express occupies a curious juncture in the overriding arc of Frank Sinatra’s movie career. Sinatra – once primarily considered the star of such frothy musicals as Anchors Aweigh, On the Town and High Society had undergone something of a renaissance following a brief fallow period in the early 1950s. Sinatra, who despised that persona of the scrawny, perpetually shy and socially inept comedy sidekick with a velvet voice, crafted for him by the studio, had quickly discovered that doing things ‘his way’ could be isolating and disastrous for his singing career.
Undaunted, but perhaps with more than a hint of bitterness weighing like a millstone about his neck, Sinatra retreated to Vegas along with fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, dazzling audiences nightly with their eclectic skits and song. Once more, the studios came to call, co-starring Sinatra with his entourage in films like Ocean’s Eleven and Robin and the Seven Hoods. But Sinatra longed for a different kind of movie career. Indeed, entering middle age he was no longer physically anemic. His hairline had receded and his once angular facial features that bobbysoxers found irresistible in the 1940s had filled out.
To say that Von Ryan’s Express refurbished Sinatra’s movie persona in a whole new direction is a bit much. After all, Sinatra had proven himself a consummate talent apart from the musical mélange as far back as the mid-fifties in The Man With The Golden Arm, and later, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). But Von Ryan’s Express did reinvigorate Sinatra’s reputation as a dramatic actor. From here on, he would increasingly be cast as the hard-boiled type with an ax to grind – a far cry from all those perennially lovable wallflowers he had played. And the powers that be at Fox were very keen to have a star of his magnitude committed to the film.
But for director Mark Robson, Sinatra proved a necessary evil to getting the project green lit. Sinatra could be, and frequently was difficult. A pro who knew his lines and marks inside and out, Sinatra preferred not to rehearse on set; to shoot all his scenes in one or two takes before taking off to pursue recreational activities. This way of working wreaked havoc on Robson’s production schedule.
Shot mostly on location in Italy’s Cortina d’Ampezzo and Andalucia Spain, Von Ryan’s Express benefits from some truly unique and breathtaking scenery. Yet the film opens with a convincing and mammoth recreation of an Italian prisoner of war camp built on the Fox back lot. This camp is populated by half starved, unkempt survivors from Britain’s 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, 167 Infantry Brigade and 56th Infantry, presided over by the egotistical and rather brutish Maj. Battaglia (Adolfo Celi) and his infinitely more compassionate Anglo-Italian translator, Captain Oriani (Sergio Fantoni).
When Joseph Ryan arrives he discovers that the previous commanding officer, Col. Brian Lockhart, has died, leaving his loyal men dissolute and resentful. The camp’s current commanding officer, Maj. Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard) secedes to Ryan’s rank, placing him in command of the troops. Out of respect for Lockhart – a man he never met – Ryan refuses to sit in his place of honor, a move that ingratiates him to the other prisoners. But Ryan makes a rather bad enemy of Fincham after he thwarts Fincham’s attempt to punish eight American officers for stealing medical supplies that he has been hording for their next planned escape.
Instead, Ryan informs Battaglia of Fincham’s plot, even showing him the tunnels already dug. This understandably infuriates Fincham but it also gains Battaglia’s respect – enough to release Red Cross supplies that the men could desperately use. Battaglia refuses Ryan’s request to release the badly needed fresh clothes that have been stockpiled. In response to this stalemate Ryan orders the men to strip naked and burn their moth eaten attire. Unable to stop their spontaneous revolt, Battaglia is forced to give in. But he exacts his own pound of flesh for Ryan’s defiance by imprisoning him in the same sweat box that claimed Lockhart’s life.
It is certain death. Or is it? The next day Ryan is released from the box by the men. It seems the Italian guard, having caught wind of the rumor that Allied forces are rapidly advancing, fled their outposts in the middle of the night, leaving the camp unguarded. Now Fincham has taken Battaglia and Oriani by force, determined to sentence both men to death. Ryan warns that this act of retaliation will be nothing short of murder as Battaglia and Oriani are no longer soldiers but citizens. Instead Ryan orders the men to put Battaglia into the sweat box. Oriani, however, will accompany the freed soldiers. But this euphoric trek ends when advancing German troops, having discovered Battaglia inside the sweat box, come in search of Ryan, Fincham and the rest.
Fincham accuses Ryan of an innate weakness that has cost them their freedom. He even goes so far as to blame Oriani for their recapture – an accusation proven false when the POWs are loaded onto a train where Ryan and Fincham find a severely beaten Oriani already waiting for them – a prisoner too. On Battaglia’s orders the Nazi’s execute all sick prisoners. Unable to control his outrage, Fincham turns his fury on Ryan, whom he nicknames von Ryan to mark his perceived complicity in their current predicament.
The prisoner train pulls into Rome where the men are allowed a brief respite under watchful armed SS guard and a new Nazi officer, Maj. Von Klemment (Wolfgang Preiss) takes command. Ryan discovers that he can pry a few floorboards loose from their train car, escaping to the rooftop where he and Fincham overpower two armed guards. Under the cover of nightfall, Ryan and Fincham assume their dead captors’ garb and manage to free a boxcar full of prisoners who help take over the train.
Von Klemment and his mistress, Gabriella (Raffaella Carra) are bound and gagged in one of the staterooms while Ryan concocts a devious plan to get them all to safety. The Allied chaplain, Capt. Costanzo (Edward Mulhare) – who speaks fairly fluent German – will pretend to be von Klemment, acting as liaise with papers forged aboard the train by Ryan. Switching their route from Innsbruck in Nazi-occupied Austria, to Bologna, Ryan begins to worry that the Gestapo is on to them until he suddenly realizes they are part of the black market and more interested in his American wristwatch than in him. To divert any lingering suspicion Ryan trades the watch for cigarettes and nylon stockings, the latter he gives to Gabriella who has concealed a piece of broken glass in her hand to cut von Klemment and herself free from their restraints.
When the train pauses in a small village for a water stop, von Klemment murders the Allied guard standing outside their room and he and Gabriella attempt a daring escape. Believing that the Allied soldiers are actually Nazis – as they are dressed that way - the locals cast stones at them and Ryan is forced to shoot Gabriella dead to conceal their identities. In the meantime, the Germans have figured out Ryan’s ruse, sending a train of SS military to apprehend them. The train’s engineer and Oriani come up with a plan to disable the signals in Milan’s Central Station, thereby rerouting them to neutral Switzerland and freedom without the Nazis knowing about it until it is too late.
A trio of Messerschmidts descends on Ryan and his men, attempting to bomb their speeding train off the tracks as it hurdles through a series of intricate tunnels carved into the Italian Alps. Taking to the rooftop the Allies are successful at shooting down one of the planes, but not before its missiles disable the track ahead with debris and rubble. Trapped on the trestle, and with the Nazi military coming up from the rear, Ryan and Fincham ambush the enemy while Oriani and Costanzo work feverishly to clear the track ahead.
The first two surprise attacks are quite successful, but as Ryan prepares to retreat to his own train that has slowly begun to pull out, he is shot in the back by the Nazis and dies on the tracks with Fincham’s voice echoing a message reiterated earlier; that if only one man escapes it is still an Allied victory.
Von Ryan’s Express is a superb WWII action/adventure yarn. The ending of the novel had Ryan rejoin his men and escape Nazi persecution together. It was Sinatra who suggested the more somber epitaph – a strange yet unsettlingly memorable finale with patriotic moralizing undertones. Perhaps Sinatra was merely reverting to type – or at least ‘form’ for the classic Hollywood archetype under the old provisions of the Production Code. No hero under the code could afford to live if he had taken the life of another. While war heroes were usually exempt from this edict, the cold-blooded murder of Gabriella by Ryan, simply for threatening to expose his identity, could not go un-avenged, despite the fact that Ryan is shown throughout the rest of the film as emotionally overwrought for having made the decision to execute her.
Sinatra is just a tad too old to be wholly believable as a hot shot American fly boy. In bomber jacket he looks long in the tooth. Wearing the Nazi soldier’s helmet he looks positively ridiculous and isn’t fooling anyone. But it really doesn’t matter. He’s Sinatra – a Teflon-coated mega-presence in his own right and doing just about everything very fine, yet in a manner befitting ‘the chairman of the board’. No living actor today can match ol’ Blue Eyes for this sort of typecast star power and that’s why, despite his obvious physical shortcomings, he’s still the best thing in the movie and memorable from start to finish.
Trevor Howard once said that he played ‘second best’ very well, and I must agree that he most definitely does and did throughout his career. Rarely the star in any film in which he appeared, Howard is about as solid a support as any film could hope to have. In Von Ryan’s Express he’s appropriately bitter, stoic and intriguingly anti-heroic; a real character who melds the more frankly dishonest aspects of his hard bitten cynic with the passionate stiff upper lip of a traditional British officer. Mark Robson deftly handles most of the action sequences with utter conviction. Save a few obvious miniatures, mostly of the Messerschmidts dive bombing the train (set against rear projection) the bulk of the film’s harrowing stunt work is full scale live action and that is very impressive indeed.
Von Ryan’s Express comes to Blu-ray via a truly awful 1080p transfer from Fox Home Video. The image is marred by severe vinegar syndrome, the blue emulsion layer of that old Eastman stock so severely faded that virtually all but a handful of the scenes maintain something of semi-accurate color balance. Flesh tones are either piggy pink or sun burnt orange. Greens in trees and grass are burnt brown, often with a tint of purple, while cliffs that ought to register as stark gray granite appear jaundice yellow.
True enough, a full scale photo chemical restoration would have been costly on actual film stock. But digital wizardry could have easily corrected these ravages of time for this digital transfer at least. Fox has made zero attempts to restore this film and their lack of interest is glaringly obvious. Several shots suffer from an excessive, though very odd and quite unnatural graininess as well as breathing around the edges. Age related artifacts linger and sometimes are quite distracting. All in all, I could have done without this release quite nicely.
The audio is a 5.1 DTS re-purposing of the original stereo and mostly adequate, particularly in showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s score. But dialogue sounds very strident in spots and effects lack bass and integration. Fox gives us a few haphazardly thrown together featurettes on the film and its influences. These shorts begin and end abruptly. Frankly, I know second year film students who could assemble this footage to better effect than these so called professionals! Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)