Posted by: Gregoryno6 | October 1, 2012

The paintings are mine! Paul Scofield, Burt Lancaster, and The Train.

Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Do you feel a sense of excitement in just being near them?
A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape… You are nothing, Labiche. A lump of flesh.
The paintings are mine! They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me or to a man like me.

For a certain generation of Australian Catholics the actor Paul Scofield will always be Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons.  More was Chancellor in the court of Henry VIII – played with great vigor in the film by Robert Shaw. The two men were close friends until Henry decided he needed his own religious franchise. A decision which divided them, and eventually led More to the executioner’s block.

Scofield’s film appearances were all too rare. He was a magnificent King Lear for Peter Brook, and a French king laden with melancholy in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. The Train was one of his earlier screen roles. It seems to have been forgotten for a few decades after its release in 1964, but lately a new wave of interest has been building. The images below both link to other reviews of the film. One enterprising fan created a faux preview – it carries the tension of the film far better than the original trailer.

The story has some basis in fact. As the Allies closed in on France in 1944 a train was loaded with artworks – selected off Hermann Goering’s shopping list; or maybe that’s something I just made up – but never left Paris. It ran around the city on a ring railway until the Liberation. The film is considerably more of a spectacle. They crash real trains, and a rail yard that was scheduled for destruction was blown up for an Allied air raid. Gomez Addams would have drooled in terminal envy.

The Train is a philosophical conundrum disguised as an action film. Scofield plays Colonel von Waldheim, a man of refinement and taste – and not above a little theft. Or a large one, either. Under cover of dark the colonel arrives at a museum filled with the art of the modernists. He lowers his guard with the museum’s curator, Mlle Villard – “This is degenerate art, you know. As a loyal officer of the Third Reich I should detest it.” The Colonel’s loyalties lie far closer than he pretends. His men arrive with the packing crates. Mlle Villard is left with her empty walls.

von Waldheim is an intellectual and a snob; an aesthete with an Iron Cross. Other people around him are irritations and obstacles. In a brilliantly staged scene the camera weaves through an office frantic with activity, finding von Waldheim studying the panic with barely concealed distaste. The lone still point. He wears the same uniform and offers the same salute as these good Heil Hitlering Nazis, but they too are only lumps of flesh.

Burt Lancaster, as the station master Labiche, is deceptively passive in his first encounter with the colonel. But he is soon revealed as a senior Resistance leader. And for most of his time on screen, Lancaster is in motion. He strides across a rail yard where German soldiers are going in every direction, and barely acknowledges them. We see him casting a new coupling piece for a train and fitting it. When von Waldheim has an engineer shot for sabotage, Labiche is conscripted to replace him. Lancaster did all his own stunt work and doubled for some of the other cast as well. The colonel’s afternoon champagne is left to grow warm when Labiche climbs out of a second story window and creates a diversion with an exploding truck.

Insolent Frenchman! I am a German officer – my contempt for your pitiful race makes me bulletproof!

We’ll see about that, Hitlerboy.

(Brief interlude – watching Lancaster in the rail workshop, I was thoroughly persuaded. He pours the molten metal, and while it’s still glowing hot breaks open the cast and cleans away the slag with a file. The scene reminded me of Route 66. The two stars would operate machinery and drive forklifts as if they’d been doing it since they were boys. It was a time when actors did stuff. They worked; they didn’t just tap tap tap on a keyboard or hang screaming two-wheel corners in car chases.

Of course, there was stuff to do in those days. Today, that replacement part would come out of a box from a Chinese manufacturer. Seeing actors engaged in daily toil lent an authenticity to the old shows that’s not easily replaced.)

The film has one major weakness in its story. Movie Nazis are by definition arrogant knuckleheads, but when the train is diverted from the line to Berlin they remain oblivious right up to the very last minute – by which time the position of the sun should have given them all the warning they need. To be honest though I didn’t notice this until I was reading comments on another website. The Train picked me up and carried me along (oh, you just knew that was coming sooner or later, didn’t you?)

The colonel, from the very first, is determined that his treasures will reach Berlin. Labiche is equally resolute in his efforts to stop the train leaving France. But he’s also ambivalent towards the artworks themselves. How do you calculate the value of a French life against a French masterpiece? In the end, Labiche doesn’t care about Renoirs and Matisses. He wants to stop the train because von Waldheim wants to get it through. Labiche’s war becomes a vendetta against one enemy officer.

Where action movies normally build toward a spectacular climax, The Train becomes more subdued as it progresses. The final scene is downbeat and probably the main reason it performed weakly on its original release. I have no difficulty imagining disgruntled cinema goers asking What the hell sort of ending is that?  Right in front of them, the conflict of freedom versus tyranny was subtly replaced by a more difficult question.

‘The paintings belong to France,’ Mlle Villard murmurs, when she seeks Labiche’s aid. von Waldheim claims the paintings by virtue of his love for them. ‘All von Runstedt can lose is men,’ he snaps at a junior officer. ‘This train is far more valuable.’

The question remains unanswered: Who owns art?


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