Frank Sinatra escapes on a train
Von Ryan’s Express (1965) is like The Great Escape (1963) on a train, but with more action and less character moments. It’s hard to decide which of these two World War II movies are better, because they are pretty much the same movie. Von Ryan’s Express stars Frank Sinatra in an dramatic role, like that of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) he did a few years before, and he does a great job here too. The story is of some American and British Prisoners-of-War, who escape from their Italian prison and head north on a stolen train. It’s a well-told story and has good action, but it doesn’t have the dialogue of The Great Escape and The Manchurian Candidate is arguably more dramatic. That’s probably why Von Ryan’s Express is never on television and Sinatra’s lesser roles are.
It’s true that Sinatra does a great job in this movie, perhaps even underselling the part in favor of his good-guy persona. He sticks up for the little guy, just like Steve McQueen did in The Great Escape, but Sinatra has a little more emotion in comparison. There’s this scene where Sinatra and his pals are turned in by this Nazi jerk, who escaped to do so after Sinatra let him live. He plays it just right, looking downtrodden and crushed, but it’s not surprising, given his character.
The one true surprise is Trevor Howard, who plays the British Major constantly in conflict with Sinatra. Howard made a career out of playing strong British authorities, like a judge in Gandhi and Major Calloway in The Third Man. He’s a great actor. He has this somewhat thick British accent that complements his rebellious attitude in this movie, but eventually he makes a good addition to Sinatra’s team of leaders, as everyone escapes. On a train. There are no snakes.
The one difference between this movie and The Great Escape, is that the most engaging part of the movie takes place on the train, not in the prison. The Great Escape grinds to a halt in places, because it doesn’t go anywhere, and seems like a hopeless last destination for some of the prisoners. Not so in Von Ryan’s Express. Sinatra as Ryan is always planning as they all zip across the Italian landscape, closely followed by another military train who is unaware they’ve taken over. The sort-of undercover operation helps build the tension too, which works very well for the movie as a whole.
This World War II movie is played like most others around that time, in that the Nazis are all bad guys and the Americans/British are all respectable good guys, and it’s all pretty much black and white. There are some dimensions of grey thrown in for contrast, like the ending and earlier when Sinatra is forced to shoot a woman, in order to protect their undercover operation. It’s not bloody and there’s an emphasis on the adventure rather than the grittiness of war.
In all, this escape film makes for a good time at the movies, and because of the nature of the plot, it’s adventurous and engaging. It has some good comedy at the beginning like The Great Escape does and the design of the whole thing is just visually stunning. Although I prefer The Manchurian Candidate as Sinatra’s best film, I’m coming around on this one, because he arguably carries it as a great leading man.