The Train on DVD

Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Aspect ratio: 1.37:1 (black & white). Dolby Digital monaural. 133 minutes. 1964. MGM 907539. Not rated. $19.98.

It's August 1944, and as the Allies push closer to Paris, the German occupation force hurries its preparations to leave the city. But while his Nazi comrades bundle official files, Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) feverishly pursues a separate, personal agenda—packing up the greatest treasures of French art for shipment by train back to Germany. Nothing stands in his way, except French national pride and the selfless determination of a few patriots.

This is the premise of The Train, director John Frankenheimer's brilliant and compelling adaptation of a book based on actual events, written by the French art curator Rose Valland. While the historical obstructions thrown in the path of the German heist were more bureaucratic than explosive, Frankenheimer's adventure spin surely provides a telling glimpse into the minds and motivations of the brave Resistance fighters who risked all for—as it is so tersely phrased here—"the glory of France."

Burt Lancaster is Labiche, the Resistance operative called upon to stop the train. At first he dismisses the appeal. How can a few boxcars full of paintings take precedence over the lives his depleted band still might save? But when Labiche watches a Nazi officer casually snuff out the life of an old friend, the engineer of the art train, he makes it his personal mission to retrieve the treasure from France's hated enemy.

The real power of The Train lies in Frankenheimer's portraits of ordinary people forced into heroic deeds by extraordinary circumstances. Many die for their valor, and their deaths matter. There are no cardboard characters here, and no comic-book heroes. In the end, Labiche must test his resolve against his own physical limits.

Along the way, Frankenheimer shows us quieter forms of heroism. In a wonderfully understated performance, Jeanne Moreau plays a widowed French innkeeper, hanging onto life and sanity by a thread. Her instinctive response in Labiche's time of need is one of the film's dramatic masterstrokes.

Although The Train's intelligent screenplay unfolds with the intimacy of a stage production, explosions, bombings, and colossal train wrecks remind us that we're surveying a grander canvas. The black-and-white film underscores the tale's grim starkness and naturalism. The DVD transfer, viewed through a Vidikron Image Two-A projector and Faroudja VP-251 line doubler, looked like 35mm film. The mono sound, if unremarkable, is quite satisfactory.