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The Train (1964) – A Movie Review

The Train (1964) – A Movie Review

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This movie review provides an analysis of the 1964 classic war film “The Train,” directed by John Frankenheimer. The review highlights the movie’s central theme, which explores the intellectual cost of war on the human race. It showcases the protagonist’s moral dilemma as he faces the challenge of saving valuable French national treasures while risking lives during World War II.

A war-themed movie that reflects upon the value of human life is easy to come across, given the plethora of titles that exist in movie libraries, especially focused on the First and second world wars, the Vietnam War, and other landmark conflicts of the previous century. Many internationally acclaimed directors have created cinematic masterpieces about war, and its cost to humanity and have prompted their audiences to become more conscious about the practice of war and the price of peace.

But how often have we come across a classic movie that upholds questions about both humans as well as the intellectual cost of war on the human race? A vanquished nation and people do not only suffer personal losses and material deprivations in war, but many times they do also suffer intellectual humiliation in various forms at the hands of the victors. The pride of a nation is derived from its people, culture, magnificent creations of science and technology, and also art. If ever a vanquished nation were to face the humiliation of the loss of national honor through loot of some prized national treasure(s), could that serve as a catalyst for united action against the enemy under adversity, to redeem the situation? 

This is the theme that is BEAUTIFULLY explored in director John Frankenheimer’s 1964 Classic Hollywood war movie, The Train. With an outstanding musical score by famed French composer Maurice Jarre and featuring one of the leading action heroes of Classic Hollywood – Burt Lancaster (who did all his stunts), The Train (1964) filmed in black and white, is an engrossing must-watch movie for all cinema lovers. It keeps the audience glued to the seats till the very end through its gripping plot, eerie suspense, and robust action sequences. As if, the entire movie is a linear arrangement of multiple climaxes put together to test the audience’s nerve repeatedly. Who would ultimately prevail in a battle of wits between the forces of good and evil? 

Scene from 'The Train' movie
Scene from ‘The Train’ movie

The plot depicts SNCF (French National Railway Company) area inspector and secret French Resistance leader Paul Labiche (played by Lancaster) confronted with a difficult reality. Paintings of many famous French artists had been stolen from a museum by Nazi Colonel von Waldheim, with an ulterior motive to siphon it off to Germany, towards the concluding stages of World War II in 1944. Could Labiche risk the lives of his associates in stopping the train full of the looted art in order to save such a valuable French national treasure? Labiche himself initially comes across as a no-nonsense tough character who cares less for the paintings and much more for human life. 

But when one of Labiche’s eccentric locomotive pilot Pappa Boule is caught by the Germans trying to sabotage the art train engine and is shot dead in punishment, Paul Labiche undergoes a complete character arc. From that point onwards the movie transforms into a true no-holds-bar clash of ideas between the simpleton and brave humanist Labiche and the vainglorious and ambitious Nazi Colonel von Waldheim. Every scene and every act of all the characters involved in the movie, go towards depicting this battle in many different ways through trickery, deception, sabotage, and outright hostile actions between the opposing parties. As if, the passion of saving the paintings had completely overtaken the hearts and minds of Labiche and his men; or had it got a lot to do with the death of Pappa Boule as well?

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The hallmark of this movie clearly is its extraordinary cinematography with fantastic camera work including several long shots of train movements, train derailments, and collisions, recorded from very acute angles. In one of the scenes, Labiche and his men in a locomotive are shown escaping from a British Spitfire fighter jet, where the aircraft had lined up the engine and started firing on it, in a case of mistaken identity. The shots from the onboard aircraft camera as well as from the escaping engine are simply mind-blowing. The audience will feel every bit of the adrenaline rush in this and also the other scenes in the movie and the desire for a favorable conflict resolution will keep growing ever and ever, in the mind of the viewer. 

True to his fame, director John Frankenheimer delivers an explosive package of action-packed drama with a clear concluding message, about the value of human life being held in the highest pedestal in any conflict over human material possessions. 

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