Sinatra's Great Train Escape
"The Great Escape" was not the only WWII escape movie and there have been others such as "Very Important Person", but it is still the best known and some would say most popular. 2 years after we had watched Richard Attenborough, James Garner and Steve McQueen escape a Nazi PoW camp we got "Von Ryan's Express" which sees Frank Sinatra lead a group of PoW's on a daring escape. But where as "The Great Escape" was based on a true story "Von Ryan's Express" is different as it is a completely fictional story, a WWII action adventure movie. And unlike "The Great Escape" "Von Ryan's Express" is not about tunnelling but Frank Sinatra as Colonel Ryan leading his men on a daring escape across land and onto a train where they must escape the ensuing Nazi's.
Having been shot down over Italy, Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra - Ocean's Eleven) is taken to a PoW camp where he finds himself the ranking officer in charge of a bunch of dishevelled prisoners. Immediately locking horns with British Major Fincham (Trevor Howard - Father Goose) as they differ in opinion over whether they should be trying to escape or not. But following a series of events they find themselves been put on a Prison Nazi prison train and decide that somehow they must take control in order to escape before being transferred to another PoW camp in Germany.
"Von Ryan's Express" is a movie of two halves with the first half focussing on Colonel Ryan finding himself the ranking Officer in a PoW camp in Italy much lighter than the second. Almost the entire of this first half is about Colonel Ryan locking horns with Major Fincham as Ryan knowing that the allies are coming believes they should all just sit it out and be good prisoners whilst Fincham believes it is there duty to try and escape, harass the Italian officers in control even if it is too the detriment of his fellow prisoners. And through a string of situations they argue and play a game of one-upmanship and "I told you so" all of which has not so much a comedic feel to it but a light irreverence. A scene where Ryan orders the prisoners to strip and burn their flea infested clothes is just one of those moments of light heartedness but at the same time it also makes a point, fitting in to the story of this almost power struggle.
The second half is where the actual action and adventure takes over a Ryan leads the men on a daring escape after they have all been thrown onto a prison train. The daring escape includes risking their lives to over power the German guards and then dupe the various German Officers they encounter along the way to believe that the train is still in Nazi control. All of which builds up to the action packed ending as they try and make it to Switzerland but find themselves being hunted down by a train packed full of Germans. It's a seriously over the top ending but strangely because the outrageousness of the action slowly climbs the longer "Von Ryan's Express" goes on the more you get drawn into it, forgetting that it is too outrageous to have ever happened. And whilst this second half becomes more action packed it doesn't forget the lightness of touch and so there are moments of humour such as the PoW vicar finding himself having to impersonate a German Officer as he is the only one who can speak German.
All of which is good and the blend of action and light hearted humour makes up for a deficiency in drama as to be honest whilst the movie is about the journey there is a lack of drama to link the events together into a coherent story.
Now to be honest I often have a criticism of Sinatra as an actor as far too many movies ended up feeling they were all about him and his ego. And to be honest there are times when "Von Ryan's Express" comes close to being another one, especially with him doing an almost Steve McQueen - Captain Hilts style impression. But as the movie grows and gets into the action side of things Sinatra's performance as Colonel Ryan grows and whilst over the top his delivery of the action is entertaining. It does help that in Trevor Howard he has a strong actor to keep him in check and Howard's performance as the prickly Major Fincham is a joy to watch especially when he finds himself at logger heads with Colonel Ryan. But aside from these two the rest of the cast, even those like Sergio Fantoni as Capt. Oriani, Edward Mulhare as Costanzo and James Brolin as Private Ames, end up filling in the gaps rather than adding anything of any interest to the movie.
What this all boils down to is that "Von Ryan's Express" is a surprisingly entertaining WWII escape movie which goes down the route of being a fictional story full of action and adventure. It does have some weaknesses but for the most they can be over looked as it draws you into the escalating adventure of PoW's escaping on a train to Switzerland.