Some people of faith during WWII

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

- Simone Weil

Worth Watching: The Train

Reviewed by Torey Lightcap

In 1944, with the Allies breathing down upon occupied France, a cache of some of the world’s greatest art from French collections was stockpiled by the Nazis  These paintings were eventually put on a train pointed toward Germany, where they were to be used for some nefarious purpose —perhaps to be bartered for long cash or barred from all eyes but the select elite of the new Reich. The movement of the art train, however, was ingeniously and famously hung up by those most European of devices – government lagtime and paperwork – and never made it more than a few miles outside Paris.

Nearly twenty years later, the noted director John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) stepped into an ailing production of the retelling of the same incident and made The Train with Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, based on the novel Le front de l’art by Rose Valland.

Forty-plus years later, The Train remains a watchable, often indelible film property. It’s that way because it does what movies are supposed to do, which is to manipulate the viewer at his or her core into caring about what will happen all the way through the picture. If this logic strikes you as being overly obvious, then I invite you to take another look at most of what’s out there right now and get back to me.

Its roots are in the conventions of the classic genre of the action film, but The Train is also a war movie and an ethical think-piece. And it’s this last element— the moral universe it inhabits —that can make this film so enticing to anyone on a spiritual journey, for it becomes an exercise in trading ethical positions.

The screenplay begins with an overt moral question: To whom does art belong? As the opening credits roll, the SS carefully crate up centuries of the world’s great paintings and label them starkly – “MANET,” “PICASSO,” “DEGAS.” (In a bit of visual punnery, the final crate is marked “FRANKENHEIMER.”) Seeing such beauty being so parceled and commoditized, the viewer may be convinced that great art is not intended for possession except as it may serve to edify, educate, and uplift the masses. We thereby have reason to villify the Nazi Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Scofield), whose easy justifications for taking the paintings (he appreciates good art and you don’t) create in us a desire to see them won back by a force stronger than Hitler’s.

Burt Lancaster’s character, a feisty French stationmaster-cum-insurrectionist named Labiche, doesn’t want to see von Waldheim’s plan come to fruition, but as he’s occupied with an operation to sabotage a Nazi munitions stockpile, he shunts the job to another engineer, Papa Boule (the terrific Michel Simon). When Papa Boule endangers the operation, Colonel von Waldheim has him eliminated to make an example, thus returning  responsibility for the rest of the operation to Labiche.

The stakes are raised considerably. Papa Boule’s murder turns a modestly important mission into the ride of Labiche’s life, and he’ll be darned if those paintings are getting out of the country. Though laden with their own symbolism, the paintings become a larger collective symbol for what is at risk in this act of cultural theft. The character Labiche understands all of  this well enough that he doesn’t have to speak of it, and the actor Lancaster gets to chew on some supreme scenery using the thousand-mile stare, square jaw, and steely eyes we know him for.

Thus the ethical question turns from the ownership of art to the value of one human life, and, eventually, to that of the many human lives used as a means of protecting the art. Can the dazzling brilliance of any object ever be more important than the one who created or maintained it, or who stopped to gaze into it to see some little piece of the holy? Finally, The Train commits to the life-side of the equation.

That very same question was briefly revisited in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, of all things. Though a spectacle at best, Day is filled with a few interesting sidebar stories, such as that of a man who finds a Guttenberg Bible in the New York Public Library and refuses to throw it into a fire upon whose warmth his very life depends. Clinging to the bible with all his might while gazing into the fire, he reverently intones, “You can laugh, but if Western Civilization is finished, I’m gonna save at least one little piece of it.”

In 1964, with the threat of nuclear destruction still in such fresh relief, The Train posited that love of the creation is the highest good from which all art proceeds. In 2004, a man in a library would rather save an object than himself, even if what that object stands for (in this case, civilization generally and not religion) is dying right alongside him.

It begs the questionWhat precisely are we in love with these days: our lives and the fact of their very createdness, or those physical objects that proceed from them? Is the seemingly heroic man in the library an unintentional exaggeration of our inordinate love of our stuff? Not that I’d drop the bible in the fire myself; still…

If that really is the case, I’ll take the thousand-mile stare any old day.

Copyright © 2009 Torey Lightcap.