Frankie and Trevor

I had vague positive boyhood memories of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS — it turned out I had slightly conflated my memory of Frank Sinatra running for a train with a scene from THE 5-MAN ARMY, the Argento-scripted spaghetti western in which Tetsurô Tanba runs for a train FOR A LONG TIME. You couldn’t possibly get Frank Sinatra to run that long. This meant that the film’s surprising and effective ending was surprising and effective all over again. You wouldn’t get an ending like that now. Already, in 1965, US cinema is groping towards the downer endings of the 70s.

This may be Mark Robson’s best film after his Val Lewton phase. (Or maybe CHAMPION, PHFFT or PEYTON PLACE?) It’s THE GREAT ESCAPE on a train, basically. And I guess TGE made that ending conceivable. It even has John Leyton in it, and he doesn’t go everywhere, you know.

WWII prison camp films seem to capture the spirit of school — the secret activities, the getting away with stuff — it all becomes hi-jinks. Helped along here by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which apart from a few lamentable comedy noises is inventive, sprightly, distinctive — it has a theme you can whistle (important for a GREAT ESCAPE knock-off) but lots of other fun elements too, plus the snare drums Darryl Zanuck would have insisted upon.

The scourge of war films — and they are a bit of a scourge, however nostalgic we might feel about some of them — all comes from WWII. If you look at First World War films, they made propaganda movies while the war was on, then largely stopped talking about it, and then when they returned to the subject it was to talk about how dreadful war was. THE BIG PARADE, WINGS, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. You could lighten the mood with a romance or a bromance, but that was mostly to contrast with how dreadful the war was. Not too many exceptions.

“You said it, miste – oh, wait”

But with WWII the propaganda continued even after the end of hostilities, as if we had to carry on convincing ourselves that it was a noble venture. Britain became hopelessly locked into war nostalgia, as did 20th Century Fox, the studio that came to embody Zanuck’s mid-life/late life crisis of masculinity writ large.

Does VRE get away with turning the war into a school romp just by slapping on a moment of tragedy? Does THE GREAT ESCAPE? My point is not that we mustn’t enjoy them, but that we should remain aware that they’re slightly poisonous.

Anyway, Sinatra is an American airman, Ryan, who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian prison camp where he’s mostly surrounded by Brits including Trevor Howard. He aquires the “Von” nickname by standing up against murdering camp commandant Adolfo Celli. But then he masterminds a daring takeover of the prison train carrying the men towards Germany, rerouting it to Switzerland. It’s faintly preposterous but done with panache.

There he is, doing his running!

Robson, a former editor, gets most of his effects by intercutting straightforward shots. The first reveal of Sinatra is beautifully staged in a Maurice Tourneur-style blocking reveal, though. The direct cutting of the nouvelle vague had found its way into LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but Robson is having none of it. I like dissolves personally but an elephantine thing like this might benefit from more nimble and surprising transitions. Robson is surprisingly flatfooted about scene endings, even when the script supplies him with zingers. He also says things like “Clue me,” which didn’t strike me as period-accurate, but I could be wrong.

The Italian war was all about male nudity: see also CATCH 22.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS stars Frankie Machine; Captain Bligh; Princess Salirah; Harry Luck; Teocrito; Willie ‘Tunnel King’; Capt. Daniel Gregg; Dr. Mabuse; Clark Gable; Bertram Garvay; Emilio Largo; Nazorine; Don Jarvis; FBI Director Denton Voyles: and King Minos.

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4 Responses to “Frankie and Trevor”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    But seriously, who does this cocky overbearing Ryan character think he is?

  2. Simon Kane Says:

    (Do we ever find out?)

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    I remember FIVE MAN ARMY and have the L.P. soundtrack where Italo Zingarelli gets the director’s credit. Apparently Taylor did not do much on this film and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE’s Peter Graves retained a diplomatic silence. The L.P. soundtrack has Bud Spencer on the cover and screenplay is by Dario Argento.

  4. Well, Ryan has basically no backstory, so in a sense, no.

    5-Man Army looks pretty flat, though, not much Italian style about it.

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