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Twenty years after the victory, WW2 war movies had undergone several 'tone' changes to maintain their audience, and with the advent of the James Bond movies they went through another. The pre- Bond Guns of Navarone had made high adventure and light escapism out of what previously had been a solemn subject, and by 1965 we were treated to pictures like Operation Crossbow that presented exaggerated fiction as fact, without apologies. After the socko success of the mostly realistic 1963 The Great Escape, ex-airman turned novelist David Westheimer wrote Von Ryan's Express, a wild yarn that borrowed ideas from Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Fox put it into production almost immediately, probably because temperamental star Frank Sinatra was enthusiastic to play the lead.
Von Ryan's Express helped pull 20th Fox out of its Cleopatra insolvency. The expensive war drama combines clever studio work in Los Angeles (the entire prison camp) with extensive location filming in Italy. Exuberant performances, especially that of blustery co-star and scene-stealer Trevor Howard, put over a clever pastiche of proven ingredients: a cruel prison camp, a mass escape, a daring caper. The spirit of high adventure is well served when the climax takes Von Ryan's runaway train high into the Italian Alps.
The continuous action and suspense remove the curse from the film's many clichés. The Italians are mostly lovers who don't want to fight, or duplicitous cowards like the commandant Battaglia. The Germans are sinister Gestapo agents, pompous officers and faceless soldiers easily garroted or gunned down. And with Frank Sinatra in charge, the film is skewed in the direction of an Ocean's Eleven romp: impersonating German soldiers is fun. Edward Mulhare's chaplain milks plenty of laughs when disguised as a high-ranking German martinet. He's only too convincing, of course. Sinatra makes an extremely unlikely German guard with no knowledge of the language beyond, "Ja." Yet he pulls off a tense bluff with a Gestapo creep who wants to buy his American pilot's watch.
The dialogue for Frank Sinatra's high-ranking Army Air Corps officer is custom tailored with Ring-a-Ding hipster talk, indicating that Ryan's furloughs must have been spent hanging out with very progressive Jazz musicians. Frankie is also given a sexy Italian foil in Rafaella Carra, who plays the consort of Wolfgang Preiss's scoffing Major. As is typical for 1960s films, Carra's outfit and hairstyle look more like Paris 1965 than Napoli 1944. Also somewhat anachronistic are the purring electronic organ riffs in Jerry Goldsmith's dynamic score, that would be a good fit for The Man From Uncle. But the elaborate footage of real trains in authentic Italian settings keeps Von Ryan's Express firmly on the rails.
The clever plot loses no opportunity for excitement, stalling Ryan's 'escape express' in the cliffs and tunnels of an Alpine pass. The machine guns get so much use they begin to sound like angry sewing machines. The deservedly famous ending goes against audience expectations; in 1965 it provided a 'word of mouth' kick that made Von Ryan's Express one of the year's most successful releases.
The Oscar-nominated Special Effects range from some good miniature trains (almost the entire nighttime firebombing scene) to some dynamic but weakly superimposed plane-fired rockets. The train sequences use a great deal of so-so rear-projection. But the picture's scariest scenes show the prisoners escaping from the moving railroad train by rolling out from underneath, darting between the wheels. It looks as if real stuntmen did that; I'll stay back at the motel.
Down the cast list we find John Leyton, the only actor both in this film and in The Great Escape. James Brolin, Richard Bakalyan and close Sinatra buddy Brad Dexter are Ryan's fellow Yank fliers.
Fox's Cinema Classics Collection two-disc release of Von Ryan's Express stretches the definition of a special edition. The feature transfer improves slightly on the earlier (2002) plain-wrap release but the volume of extras hardly requires a second disc. Fox's handsome repackaging job starts with the cover reproduction of the film's exciting poster art, an all-action image that mesmerized kids at matinees. Ol' Blue Eyes was fifty when the film was made, and it's amusing now to see his face painted atop the body of an Olympic sprinter. An insert for liner notes is very informative, while the 'lobby cards' are just four miniature color stills in a nice envelope.
The main extra is a making-of featurette that can't quite justify classic status for this efficient popcorn picture. We learn that producer-director Mark Robson had difficulties with the uncooperative Sinatra (really?) and Richard Zanuck explains yet again how Fox at this time was practically in receivership. The show lauds Sinatra's insistence that the ending be changed to alter the fate of his character. Although it's a smart choice that provides an extremely effective finale, it should be obvious that the star was just making sure that viewers would leave the theater thinking of him and not the train or the other characters. A second, less memorable featurette is entitled Hollywood and Its War Films.
Jon Burlingame shares screen time with Jerry Goldsmith's relatives on a pleasant career overview for the famous composer. A 'tribute' to Goldsmith's music turns out to be an annoying digest version of the film. Goldsmith is wonderful but the Von Ryan's Express score is not the best choice to billboard his talent. A second track on the main disc isolates the score's original cues, and adds commentary by Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and John Burlingame. Some TV spots, trailers and a still gallery are hardly enough to necessitate a second disc. Fox's price is attractive, however, and that exciting cover illustration is hard to pass up!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Von Ryan's Express rates: