Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Von Ryan's Express

This 1965 film isn't as well-known in World War II movie lore as the more popular films are, but it still offers an exciting, action-packed adventure.

Ol' Blue Eyes, a.k.a. Frank Sinatra, is tough, a bit grouchy, and all business in the lead role of Col. Joseph L. Ryan, a fighter pilot who gets shot down behind the German lines in Italy. After he's taken to the Allied POW camp run by the Italians, he clashes with the head of the British Army, Major Eric Fincham, played brilliantly by Trevor Howard. Col. Ryan makes a few deals with their Italian keepers - specifically the Italian camp commander, Major Battaglia -  in order to get better treatment for his men, and it earns him the dubious nickname of Von Ryan from Major Fincham. The two are caught in a power struggle of principle vs. need.

When Italy surrenders, the POWs take over the camp, leave Battaglia in a sweat box (much to the chagrin of those who wanted him dead) and take off toward Switzerland with the help of an Italian captain, Capt. Orioni, who is now on the prisoners' side.

The trek doesn't last long. They're captured by the Germans and put on a troop train, en route to another POW camp. But Ryan and his men aren't about to take this sitting down. They devise a daring plan to overtake the train and beat the Germans at their own game. The question is, will they all make it out alive?

Von Ryan's Express offers an intriguing, often-overlooked view of the Italian-German relationship, as well as the America-British relationship. It's a fascinating glimpse into the concept of loyalty, and how basic humanity can be destroyed in the midst of war. Sinatra deftly plays the role of Ryan and is a treat to watch. Trevor Howard is his perfect foil, and you simply don't know which one to root for since both have valid arguments. The Italian viewpoint, as portrayed by Oriani (Sergio Fantoni) adds depth to the plot, and it's interesting to see how former enemies become allies.

Additional performances by Wolfgang Preiss, who plays a German major, and Raffaella CarrĂ , as Preiss's Italian mistress, create a well-rounded cast.

Sadly (?), Frank doesn't do any singing in this film, and that's as it should be. His performance is gritty and very real - one of his best.