Not quite The Great Escape…but few are.
The first half of the 1960s featured a number of films dealing with escape from World War II prison camps. Many of the best books about such efforts had appeared during the 1950s and a few of the most well-known had been accorded British film adaptations (The Wooden Horse , The Colditz Story ). With the exception of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, Col) — in which escape was in some ways only incidental to the greater story — few had received major international film treatments. That changed with the release of The Great Escape (1963, UA) — an excellent film and a significant success due to its high-powered, international cast (James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Hans Messemer, Gordon Jackson) and fine direction by John Sturges. A number of interesting other efforts appeared. The Password Is Courage (1962, Britain) featured a fine Dirk Bogarde performance and King Rat (1965, Col) was a good adaptation of the James Clavell novel, with fine work from George Segal and Tom Courtenay. In the same year as the latter, Von Ryan’s Express was released. Where most of the others had focused on German or Japanese camps, this film began in an Italian camp containing a large contingent of British prisoners and a handful of Americans. The film proved to be a critical and popular success, although it was more of a pure action piece than the action balanced with thoughtful and measured planning that characterized The Great Escape.
Fox recently released Von Ryan’s Express on DVD in a good-looking but rather bare-bones edition.
American pilot Colonel Joseph Ryan is shot down and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy. The camp houses a large number of British officers who are suffering from lack of food and medicine — reprisals imposed on them by their Italian jailers due to repeated escape attempts. As he is the highest ranking officer among the prisoners upon his arrival, Ryan becomes their commanding officer. Feeling that the prisoners’ immediate health is more important than escape, Ryan makes concessions to the jailers thus earning the nickname “Von Ryan” from the British contingent and their leader, Major Eric Fincham.
When Italy capitulates to the Allies, the Italian jailers desert from the prison camp and the prisoners are left to fend for themselves. Realizing that the Germans are moving to occupy Italy and take over control of the prison camps, Ryan engineers an effort to escape from Italy by taking control of a train and heading north to safe haven in neutral Switzerland. When the Germans realize what has happened, the pursuit is on.
Adapted from David Westheimer’s best seller of the same title, Von Ryan’s Express successfully cashed in on the interest in World War 2 and prisoner-of-war films during the early 1960s. The success was partly due to the appetite of the times as well as the film’s own effective blend of action and unique location shooting. The Italian Alps provided a fresh and scenic setting. Of course, any film that features steam trains has an immediate advantage as far as I’m concerned. Then add some spectacular shots of the trains passing through alpine tunnels and crossing high trestles and you’re halfway home no matter how prosaic the story.
Von Ryan’s Express, despite the presence of the always interesting Trevor Howard in a major supporting role, is essentially a Frank Sinatra vehicle. Stripped of the kibitzing support of his Rat Pack buddies, Sinatra does quite a good job on his own playing Colonel Ryan. He is forceful when the part needs it and his work in the action sequences is convincing. He also does a good job of conveying remorse over the necessity of killing an Italian woman who has collaborated with the Germans. One reason that Sinatra is able to shine is the fact that his Ryan character is much more rounded and of some depth compared to the rather one-dimensional Fincham character that Trevor Howard is saddled with.
Veteran director Mark Robson, despite some script inadequacies, manages to inject a reasonable degree of tension and suspense in the second half of the film. The chess game of getting the train successfully through German-held train yards and the subsequent pursuit through the Alps holds the attention throughout. The aerial attack on the prisoners’ train as it makes its way to the pass is particularly exciting — nicely shot and effectively edited.
Fox has given us quite a good-looking DVD version of Von Ryan’s Express. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, anamorphically enhanced, and utilizing 30 scene selections. Although the image is a little soft-looking at times, it is for the most part bright and clean. There are a number of nicks and speckles, however, so Fox has used a print that’s not exactly in pristine condition as its source material. Colours are vibrant for this vintage of film, particularly for the mountain sequences, and shadow detail is quite acceptable. A good, workmanlike effort from Fox.
The original sound track was in mono and that is included on the disc. It is in good shape and originally was well-enough done to warrant an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Effects. Also available, however, is a remastered stereo track that further enlivens the film’s audio somewhat. The action sequences, especially the aerial attack, benefit noticeably. Thumbs-up to Fox for this extra attention. A French mono track and English and Spanish subtitles are included.
I have two concerns here — one with the film and the other with the disc.
Despite a somewhat unexpected ending, much of the script relies on clichés or convenient coincidences. How many times have we come across the tyrannical prison camp warden, typical British stiff upper lip, the enemy guard who proves to be on the prisoners’ side (and sporting an eye patch no less), or Germans who respond to bluster rather than common sense? They’re all here. Then there’s the matter of the Milan train yard which just by chance happens to have an advance control post which first allows the prisoners’ train to be rerouted around the whole Milan complex and then whose destruction disables the control boards in the rest of the complex so the Germans don’t know what’s happened until it’s too late.
Fox’s disc is rather disappointing in the area of supplements. We get the original theatrical trailer and trailers for five other Fox films with a war theme (The Longest Day, Patton, The Sand Pebbles, The Thin Red Line, and Tora! Tora! Tora!), but that’s it. Sinatra and Howard were pretty important actors and Mark Robson a fine director. Surely some background on their film careers could have been assembled at least. For a film with the sort of extensive location work that Von Ryan’s Express had, I’m sure some background production notes would have been possible too. Unfortunately, Fox apparently didn’t think quite enough of the film to make the extra effort.
Von Ryan’s Express is for the most part a satisfactory piece of action entertainment. It falls somewhere in the upper middle of the pack for prisoner-of-war escape films. The film serves as one of Frank Sinatra’s better dramatic outings and if you’re in the mood for this type of movie on a rainy day, you’ll be quite reasonably diverted. Fox provides no added incentive to purchase the DVD beyond a competent transfer, however. So, unless you’re just a real sucker for films about escapes or featuring steam trains, a rental is probably your best bet.