Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Von Ryan’s Express (1965) ***

UR, 117 min.
Director: Mark Robson
Writers: Wendell Mayes, Joseph Landon, David Westheimer (novel)
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Raffaella Carra, Brad Dexter, Sergio Fantoni, John Leyton, Edward Mulhare, Wolfgang Preiss, James Brolin, John Van Dreelen, Adolfo Celi, Vito Scotti

Every once and a while I just get an urge for a certain type of movie. One of the most frequent genre urges I feel is for the pre-“Apocalypse Now” war flick. When war wasn’t quite so heavy. When war was more of an adventure than a horrific reality.

Certainly there were a few war flicks before “Apocalypse Now” that were a little less on the glorifying adventure side, like “The Longest Day” or “Hell is for Heroes”. But after “Apocalypse Now”, it seems like it’s become too politically incorrect to turn war into an adventure. I suppose that’s probably how it should be, but that doesn’t stop my urge to see this particular type of movie. I own several. “Force 10 From Navarone” and “Kelley’s Heroes” are two of my favorite, but this time I wanted to see one I hadn’t before.

Thanks to Netflix, there are plenty at my immediate disposal. I think it’s a pretty popular genre, no matter how politically incorrect it is. “Von Ryan’s Express” was one I’d never really heard of, but had seen floating around Netflix for quite some time. It stars Frank Sinatra as its titular hero. Sinatra’s an actor who doesn’t get enough credit because of his fame in other areas.

The movie is a prison break flick in the great tradition of “The Great Escape”. Sinatra makes as solid an American lead in a cast of Brits as Steve McQueen did in that one. British soldiers mostly populate this Italian prison camp; and as Sinatra is brought in, they are burying their commanding officer. This makes Von Ryan the ranking officer. The Brits have a standing order to try to escape imprisonment. Sinatra knows the war is just about over and wants to just wait it out. Or so it seems.

Like McQueen, Sinatra has a great poker face. His goal is to get a little relief in the camp before he really tries to go over the heads of the camp’s enemy command. Instead of letting the prisoners go, the Italian soldiers in charge of the camp decide to turn the prisoners over to the Germans, who are trying to clean shop before they go out in a blaze of glory. They put the prisoners on a train headed deep into Germany. Von Ryan comes up with a plan to take over the train and take it to Switzerland for escape. It involves all the typical subgenre plot points, like dressing the men up in Nazi uniforms and trying to get past check points with the only German speaking soldier of the group posing as a commanding officer. The Chaplin lands that role here and has a couple of pretty funny reactions to his role.

“Von Ryan’s Express”, like most of these types of stories, is not great cinema; but it is great fun. It doesn’t cheat on its predicaments and Sinatra is forced into a great many tough choices. Mostly, it delivered perfectly on the urge I was feeling on that particular night. That’s one of the great powerful aspects of cinema that I love. I had an itch, and I was able to scratch.

No comments: