While not particularly OBSCURE, (Trains Magazine rated it the #1 greatest railroad film, evah), this black & white MOVIE is chock full of TRAINS from start to finish. So, two out of three ain’t bad.
Mind you, it’s a foreign film, which I usually don’t review, but The Train features so many explosions, spectacular derailments and is steam locomotive-propelled throughout, I just couldn’t pass it up.
Burt Lancaster, American accent intact, stars as the engine driver Labiche (pronounced Labeesh) — more about his funny last name later.
So come on, all you World War 2 buffs, let’s check out how the railway workers of the French Resistance take on the Germans in this gritty, over-exposed iron horse opera.
Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (played by Paul Scofield) is the art connoisseur who has looted a trainload of paintings from the Musee du Jeu de Paume and intends to take it back to Germany for ransom (“enough to equip 10 panzer divisions”).
How come English stage actors seem to make the most sinister and convincing stiff-arm saluting German officers?
There are two trains, actually, to start the movie. Here we see Engineer Didont (played by Albert Remy) pulling the military train into the yard and shops at Vaires.
As Labiche watches from the switch tower, an armored locomotive (complete with canon and ack-ack guns) emerges to pull the military train.
The tower switchman throws an interlocking lever and a switch is realigned with a very satisfying metallic “thunk”.
Have you noticed all the clocks? It’s getting close to 10am…when the Allies plan to bomb the yard at Vaires.
It’s an intricate ballet as one locomotive is exchanged for the other. One lever is stuck! The switch won’t throw over properly and….just like that, the big engine is on the ground.
Air Raid! Right on cue, the air raid sirens howl and everyone scrambles for cover.
But what’s this? It’s the curmudgeon Papa Boule (played by Michel Simon) driving the art train — right through the yard.
Burt tries to red flag Boule, running alongside and yelling at him, then finally lines the art train through the yard just as the bombs start to drop.
What an air raid! The art train barely snakes out of harm’s way before the entire area is reduced to rubble. Impressive aerial views and scenes with the switch tower blowing up and the derailed armored locomotive set on fire.
According to IMDb Trivia, the scenes at Vaires were filmed at Gargenville yard, outside Paris. This was done by a special arrangement with the French National Railway, which had been seeking to modernize the yard, but lacked the funds to do so.
The art train limps into Rive-Reine. Papa Boule has sabotaged the wheel bearing with a franc coin, but alas, the Krauts catch him at it, back at the shops. He’s toast.
In a really cool railroad shop sequence, we see Labiche repairing the damaged bearing, then moving the entire driving rod over to the steam engine with a crane.
Also from IMDb Trivia:
“The repair depicted by on-the-spot casting of a “Babbitt bearing” for the sabotaged drive rod of Boule’s locomotive, is an actual procedure. The bearing style was invented by Isaac Babbitt of Taunton, MA in 1839. The soft metal which comprises the bearing is itself known as babbitt, and for traditional railroad use is 89% tin, 7% antimony, and 4% copper.”
Of course once you repair a locomotive like that, you have to take it out for a break-in run. Unfortunately for Burt and the boys, a couple Allied planes spot them and strafe them up a treat.
Great faces from Burt and Al as they urge the old engine into the safety of a tunnel.
Back at Rive-Reine with the repaired locomotive, Labiche gets the bad news that HE will be operating the art train back to Germany.
Approaching Metz, we get some artsy nighttime shots of the train and locomotive. Back in the rear coach, the Germans are carefully tracking their progress on a big map.
More fun bits about the steam engines used in this movie courtesy IMDb Trivia (as I have no knowledge of French motive power whatsoever…). ;p
“The primary steam locomotives in the film are Class 230Bs, #739 (leads the military train Paris to Vaires), 517 (art train until Rive-Reine crash), 855 (rear engine in Rive-Reine crash), and 711 (art train post-crash). These engines were built from 1901 to 1912, and were nearing the end of their long service life in 1964.”
Unknown to the Germans, the railway workers have looped the train back towards Paris and re-signed their route to complete the deception. The level crossing screen capture seen here is truly O. Winston Link quality.
Finally, the art train reaches Zweibrucken, just inside the Third Reich and the officer smugly calls it in. Except the train is actually at Vitry Le Francois heading west back to Rive-Reine!
La Resistance is not through screwing up the Kraut’s plans, however. Didont uncouples the locomotive and Labiche sends it careening down the tracks. The two then bail off and make a run for it.
Pow! Irresistible force meets immovable object (a previously derailed locomotive in its path) back at Rive-Reine.
The art train slowly coasts into the station at Rive-Reine. How’d you like to open the door and see this coming at you?
Yep, the railway workers have sent a THIRD locomotive barreling down the tracks at the art train. The officer’s ride is reduced to kindling as the locomotive telescopes through the car.
Well, Von Waldheim is really pissed off now. In a great scene, he hollers, “Pilzerrrrrrrrrrrrr!” (one of his officers) ordering him to find and kill Labiche. My only disappointment was the sidecar never became separated from the motorcycle.
Romantic Interlude! Keeping the movie from being a complete weinerfest is the appearance of pouty innkeeper Christine (played by Jeanne Moreau), rahr-RAHR! This harkens back to another famous French love affair. Burt doesn’t exactly take up with la belle femme fatale, but maybe he revisits her later on…
Okay, back to the action. A phony air raid is staged so Burt and crew can paint the first 3 freight cars of art WHITE. This is a signal to any Allied planes not to bomb Le Objects de Art.
Sure enough, Von Waldheim realizes the situation and dispatches his art train in DAYLIGHT, knowing it won’t be bombed. Impressive view of the 3 “white” cars from a bomber.
Labiche is doggedly still out there, planting plastic explosives and despite the hostages, blows up the track in front of the art train. I LOVE his plunger!
More about the Labiche name. The frikken google French/English translation for Labiche is “The Doe”, as in “Doe, a deer, a female deer…” And the pronunciation… I can’t help myself. I HAVE to say “Labeesh!” in an exaggerated, high-pitched, and silly French accent. It tickles me.
The damage to the track is repairable and we get some detailed views of the hostages “hand laying” rail brought up from behind the train. Meanwhile, Labiche has climbed the hillside and is trying to get past all the German soldiers sent ahead to guard the track.
It’s interesting how the French used screws instead of spikes to hold their track in place.
For the final scene, Burt comes across a conveniently-located railroad tool shed (and adjacent road). He sets about dismantling the track with that lug wrench screw thing and sledge hammer.
Back at the art train, the track has been repaired enough to gingerly pass through at restricted speed.
Too late, the Krauts see the sabotaged track and faster than you can say, “Sacre Bleu!”, Class 230B #711 is on the ground. With the rail turned over, they’re going nowhere without a heavy wrecking crane.
What luck! A German convoy on the adjacent road has Von Waldheim commandeering their transport and unloading his paintings. When the convoy boss tells him, “No way, Jose”, Colonel Franz flips out and gets the Dutch Angle villain treatment as frequently seen in “Batman“.
That leaves Von Waldheim with his stranded train of paintings and a showdown with Labiche. It does not end well for the officer.
Great movie. It was a pleasure to research this picture and learn more about ancient French locomotives and related railroad paraphernalia. Labeesh!
Here’s what IMDb has to say about The Train:
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