During the last days of the German occupation of Paris, Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), an art-obsessed German colonel, arranges to steal all of the city’s great art treasures and send them by train to Berlin.
When the French Resistance learns of the plan, French railway engineer Labiche (Burt Lancaster) is ordered to stop the train.
Not wishing to risk lives or the paintings – which are part of the French national heritage – Labiche concocts an elaborate scheme to keep the train in France. As false place names are erected at stations to confuse the Germans – who think they are still speeding homeward – Labiche drives the train in a circle, ending where the journey began.
Both Labiche and Von Waldheim become obsessed with their missions.
The Train begins with a dedication “to those French railwaymen, alive and dead, whose magnificent spirit and whose courage inspired this story”.
The film also seems a tribute to Lancaster’s athletic prowess. He leaps over walls and on and off trains. Even when he’s shot in the leg he moves faster than anyone else in the mostly genuine French cast.
The fast-paced action is very well handled by John Frankenheimer, replacing Arthur Penn after several days shooting.
Real trains, not models, were used throughout, with multiple cameras catching as much action with as few takes as possible. During one crash sequence, a locomotive came in too fast and destroyed six of seven cameras at one blow.
The film also raises the question of whether any work of art is worth anyone’s life.
Colonel von Waldheim
General von Lubitz