Off-List: Von Ryan's Express
As usual I have selected three off-list movies for 1965 and the first of them is Von Ryan’s Express. It not a movie I knew to be good and therefore deserving a place on the List. In fact, I have never seen it before. Rather, going through a list of major films from 1965 this one stood out as being interesting and of a genre that is sadly underrepresented on the List, the adventure movie. Also, it features one of my favorite actors, Frank Sinatra.
It is 1943 and Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra), a pilot, has been shot down over Italy. He is brought to a POW camp holding around 400 or so British soldier, who from the look of it have been there for some time. As their own colonel has recently died, Ryan is now the ranking officer.
The British prisoners are having a row with their Italian guards, notably the commandant Battaglia (Adolfo Celi), led by the fiery Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). As a result, Battaglia has shut off the water and medicine supply as well as a number of other necessities. The first thing Ryan does is to put an end to this childish row and get proper care for the men. This does not go down so well with the British, who nickname him Von Ryan.
Then the Italian army surrenders, and the Germans take over. In the limbo the prisoners escape and begin a mad dash towards the Swiss border, mainly on board a train.
This is a war time prison escape movie and as such one of many. It is probably not the best, but it does have a number of qualities. First and foremost, it keeps up a high level of suspense and pace, making it a fun and easy movie to watch. The train ride to Switzerland is never boring and easily the best part of the movie.
Secondly, 20th Century Fox went all out and filmed much of the movie on location in Italy and it paid off. The footage is amazing. The train ride through the beautiful Italian landscape filmed from the train and from the air is a brilliant advertisement for the country.
There are passages where the adventure part of it gets the upper hand, especially the slapstick scenes with the Italian guards and the laughing British soldiers. The movie loses a lot of credibility in those scenes and though the intension is to lighten up the movie, it goes too far.
Then at other times it is surprisingly faithful to the story it is trying to tell. The Germans actually speak German and the Italians speak Italian. The planes really are Messerschmidt aircraft and people do die meaningless deaths. The ending itself is not exactly the typical Hollywood ending that you would expect, but surprisingly dark.
Sinatra is, well, Sinatra and that is always good, thought this is nowhere his finest performance. He does what he needs to do and that is fine enough. His role could easily have been done by Sean Connery. It is Trevor Howard who steals the picture. I cannot recall ever seeing him this fiery. The looks and scowls he sends off are priceless as are his frequent verbal jabs.
I found myself greatly entertained by this movie and in a decade the List editors have stuffed with bleak, weird or arty movies, a film like “Von Ryan’s Express” is a breath of fresh air. I could easily see this one again.