As the Germans try to hold off advancing Allied forces in Italy in August 1943, an American Army Air Corp pilot, Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is shot down and sent to a prisoner of war camp where he becomes the ranking officer. There he clashes quickly with his second-in-command, a fiery, stubborn British officer, Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard). When the camp's Italian guards abandon the camp, Ryan makes a difficult decision, one that ends up backfiring as almost 400 prisoners are rounded up and boarded on a German train heading north. Heading the wrong way away from the advancing Allied forces, it seems hope has run out for Ryan, Fincham and their fellow prisoners. When all seems lost though, Colonel Ryan has one more trick up his sleeve, a daring plan that has the prisoners attempting to take over the train. The closely packed train is headed to Germany, but not if Ryan has his say. Instead? They look to Switzerland, but can their plan hold together?
If there is one major difference between 'Von Ryan's' and other prisoner of war movies, it is this. While all entertaining, movies like The Great Escape, River Kwai, Stalag 17 and others are high drama, often delivering a message. That's not to say Von Ryan's Express isn't high drama, director Mark Robson doing a fine job in this WWII actioner. It's more than that. It's more than just describing it as a prisoner of war movie. I've long thought this is one of the most perfect popcorn flicks ever made, the most entertaining, the most adrenaline-pumping action/dramas I can think of. It clocks in at 116 minutes but with each viewing, it goes by quicker and quicker. There isn't a weak moment. There are no slow portions, no parts where the momentum lets up. It's the rare movie that can accomplish that. From beginning to surprising finale, I love it all, one of my all-time favorites, one film I can watch over and over again.
What's the best thing going here for this 1965 war movie? There's a ton to mention! Just a few weeks ago in my review for 100 Rifles I mentioned how much I loved composer Jerry Goldsmith's score. Well, as good as that score was, I think his score here is one of his bests (and that's saying something considering the breadth of his career). Listen to the main theme HERE. This is the perfect score to back up the action, the heart-pumping moments, the quieter, more inward scenes and everything in between. An underrated score that deserves more of a reputation. Right up there with the musical score as an additional character is the choice to film on location in Italy. The filming locations give an air of authenticity that Hollywood backlots just wouldn't have accomplished. From the hills and streams to the ancient ruins to the weathered towns and train stations, wouldn't you know it? The film actually looks like it takes place in Italy. Go figure, right?!? These are things that if mishandled wouldn't be a deal-breaker, but when handled correctly.....well, they can lift the movie up a notch or two or 10.
You know who's cool? Totally caught me off guard, but it's that guy -- maybe you've heard of him -- named Frank Sinatra. By the mid 1960s, Sinatra played variations on tough guy parts that allowed him to more or less, be himself. In other movies, it might seem too familiar, but there's an energy here as Sinatra brings this intriguing character to life. Dubbed 'Von Ryan' by his fellow prisoners for helping the Germans, he's forced to make difficult decisions left and right, often putting lives at risk with each passing decision. There's an easy-going confidence to Sinatra's Ryan, a 90-day wonder as he calls it, a capable leader making some impossible decisions. The best supporting part not surprisingly comes from Trevor Howard as the stubborn, action-driven Fincham. Their Odd Couple-like relationship works, the quiet, cool American and the fiery Brit officer providing some good energy, some good sparks throughout. Their chemistry is evident any time and every time they're on screen together. Two excellent leads.
Lost in the shuffle can be a damn good supporting cast beyond Sinatra and Howard. In the eye candy department, Raffaella Carra plays Gabriella, a beautiful Italian girl who becomes a part of the escape. As for the villains, there's Adolfo Celi as a Fascist Italian officer and commandant of the camp and the very German Wolfgang Preiss as a very German officer in command of the prison train. My favorite supporting parts are Ryan's fellow prisoners, a cool group, an almost oddball crew that includes Bostick (Brad Dexter), one of the few American prisoners, Capt. Oriana (Sergio Fantoni), a well-meaning Italian officer thrust in with the P.O.W.s, Orde (John Leyton, also in Great Escape), Fincham's right-hand man, Father Costanzo (Edward Mulhare), the naive at times but very brave priest, and Stein (Michael Goodliffe), the camp medic. Also look for James Brolin, Michael St. Clair, Richard Bakalyan and James Sikking as other prisoners with smaller parts.
Based off a novel by David Westheimer, 'Von Ryan' certainly has plenty to offer, including a handful of memorable set pieces. The opening 40 minutes are spent in the camp, the next 15 or so on the road and the last hour is when the prisoners are boarded on the prison train. I loved Ryan's scene with an inquisitive Gestapo agent (supposedly William Berger, I'm not positive) asking about Ryan's American watch. I loved Mulhare's masquerade as a German officer hoping to dupe an inspection. There are all these great moments that embrace this ludicrous possibility of this happening and run with it. We go along because it's so damn fun. This is a thrill a minute flick that's meant to entertain scene in and scene out. Nowhere is that more evident than....
The finale. As strong as the movie is, 'Von Ryan' is at its absolute best over the last 25 minutes, the prison train making a desperate run to the Alps and Switzerland, a German troop train (commanded by John Van Dreelen) hot on their trail. Throw in a trio of Messerschmitt fighters, a bombed out bridge (Spain standing in for Italy), and a stunning backdrop on a mountainside railway trestle....well, you've got a winner. It is in the ending that the film deviates most from Westheimer's novel, but it is a doozy of a finale. In terms of pure excitement, of really getting your blood pumping, I can think of few movies that can the ending here. A race against time, Germans edging ever closer, it has it all. Just a great movie, one I can rewatch over and over and always pick up something new.
Highly recommended. One of my all-time favorites.
Von Ryan's Express (1965): ****/****
Rewrite of October 2009 review