Thursday, September 8, 2011

Von Ryan's Express

 " You'll receive the Iron Cross for this Von Ryan ".

 An angry prisoner to Col. Ryan after he shows the Italians the escape tunnel.

 In 1963 20th Century Fox produced a film that all but bankrupted the studio. The film of course was Cleopatra. It has gone down in cinematic history as the most expensive film ever made. Its budget was initially only $2 million, but it blew out to an eye watering $44 million! To put that into perspective ( and adjusted values ), in today's terms that equates to $320 million!!! Only 2007's Pirates of the Caribbean : At Worlds End at $300 million comes close.

 On release Cleopatra was the highest grossing film of 1963 earning $48 million in the U.S.  20th Century Fox's receipts were only $26 million of that. World wide box office receipts saw its overall gross climb to $57.7million. In the process it gained another distinction. Namely becoming the only film in history to be the highest grossing film of a year, and still run at a loss.

 What has this then to do with 1965 film Von Ryan's Express? After the financial calamity of Cleopatra, 20th Century Fox had to make drastic entrenchments just to survive. Yet when the chance came along to make Von Ryan's Express, the studio jumped on it in a bid to prove it could still make epics. On its release in 1965 critics loved it, as did the public, and it became the 10th highest grossing film of the year. But even though it was a success it wasn't what saved the studio. In the same year the studio released A Sound Of Music which really pulled the studio's chestnuts out of the fire. In the process it became one of the most popular films of all time ( I personally can't stand it!! From the moment Julie Andrews starts 'The hills are alive...' I turn it off!!! ).

 This film is based on a 1964 novel of the same name. Written by David Westheim it was a best seller. He was an editor before the war who had been a B-24 navigator and shot down over Germany. He was imprisoned in Stalag Luft 111, camp of The Great Escape fame. Unfortunately I can't find any information as to whether he had any involvement though. Suffice to say he later wrote a memoir which was published in 1992, entitled Sitting It Out : A World War 11 POW Memoir. I think his experiences really come through in his novel, and hence the film as well.

 With Von Ryan's Express it is hard to go past the feeling that 20th Century Fox were trying to cash in on the success of 1963 film the Great Escape. Both are of similar in premise even though VRE is totally fictional. But where VRE differs markedly is that it didn't have the all star cast. In all reality it has only two big name actors, with the rest of the cast all but unknowns these days. It was interesting though because I recognised actor Edward Mulhare who plays the chaplain. I couldn't place him until I did a Google search, and found out he had been Devon Miles in 1980's TV show, Knightrider.

 Maybe if the studio was in better financial shape the cast may have been all star as well. But the fact that there are only two big actors in the film doesn't detract from it. The cast is very, very good and really there are no weak performances. But the two big names put in superb performances, with each great proponents of their respective countries acting abilities.

 How talented was Frank Sinatra?? He had won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in From Here To Eternity. After VRE there was speculation he could receive another Oscar nomination. It didn't transpire, but his performance is certainly Oscar worthy. I'm just pleased for the film overall that Sinatra had the brilliance of Trevor Howard next to him. If Sinatra had been the only actor of note, I think he would have over shadowed all else, and the film lost in Sinatra. As it is Howard is his counter balance and puts in as good a performance. But as good as Howard is it is hard to go go past Sinatra, as he is the lead character, and his portrayal of Col. Joseph L. Ryan was crucial to the film.

 Behind the scenes though Sinatra did throw his weight around at times. In VRE there was speculation that he and director Mark Robson were at odds. The realitive ease in which the film was made belies this though. But Sinatra did insist that VRE be filmed in PanaVision, instead of the studio's standard CinemaScope. What the difference is I don't really know, suffice to say Sinatra got his way!! But his real weight went into changes for his character from the novel. This was mainly seen in the films end where Ryan is killed running after the train. In the novel Ryan survives, and the novel ends with him laughing at the name, Von Ryan's Express painted on the train's side.

 Sinatra insisted on this for two reasons. Firstly he wanted Ryan killed of to forestall a possible sequel ( in 1965 David Westheim obviously hadn't written his 1980 sequel, Von Ryan's Return!! ). Secondly, he felt that by killing off Ryan, the character achieves believability and atonement for the shooting of the German officer's Italian mistress. In many respects Sinatra was correct, because in the first part of the film we see him make several errors of judgement when he takes over senior command in the prison camp. Even though this is an adventure film it doesn't delve into false sentimentality. Ryan has his faults and finds atonement for them in his death.

 The prison scene for me at first felt severely anti-British. You know Hollywood, just reminding the Poms that America had bailed it out in two world wars. And yet just because Sinatra plays an American, his judgements and sentiments aren't anti-British at all, and based on his personal beliefs. But even so the sniping from Howard's Major Eric Fincham must have worn him thin. But by the end both Ryan and Fincham come to respect each other even though their viewpoints differ so markedly.

 One of the things that is amazing about the film, with the fact 20th Century Fox were in such financial straights, was the fact that it was filmed almost exclusively on site. This was a concious decision and in hindsight a brave one. For instance the prison camp was actually a full size mock up built in Italy, and not on the studio's back lot. Filming was also almost exclusively in Northern Italy. The final tunnel scene was filmed in Spain. The film also used extensive use of real equipment, such as trains, trucks, and aeroplanes, ( this is called 'verisimilitude' ). The only scenes shot in America were many of the internal scenes.

 The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects. It didn't win but the effects for their day were very good. This was an escapism film of very high quality. Fast paced and well acted it is no wonder it was so well received on release. Despite that though some critics called it implausible! I think this a nonsense criticism because it is a adventure film, and escapism is only achieved through exciting, daring scenarios. I like the premise for the simple  fact that it avoids frivolity and cliches. It is in fact a quite serious toned film which I think is its great strength.

 But the film does include a raft of historical inaccuracies. I will point out a few, but overall I could overlook them as the film makes no semblance to reality. It is a simple adventure film based within the context of a historical event. Firstly some of the Italian guards in the camp are armed with the German MP-40 machine pistol, better known as the 'Schmeisser'. This is nonsense as Italy had its own armaments industry, and it was highly unlikely the Germans would arm Italian soldiers, when they needed to arm their own. Secondly the planes used are actually German and used during the war. They are the BF108 'Taifun' and were used as a personnel transport and liaison aircraft. It was not a tactical aircraft as used in the film. Also the camouflage is hysterically surreptitious!! I mean bright yellow!! In the desert maybe, but not Northern Italy!! Also at one stage I saw a German truck towing an obvious wooden tank mock up. It is very unlikely a truck was ever used to tow a tank!!

 The other thing is to is that when the prisoners initially escape the camp Ryan is in command. This is nonsense because the men were all infantry or tank crews. An airmen would have absolutely no conception of infantry tactics or land warfare. In all likely hood Ryan would have handed command over to Fincham and put himself into an advisory role. But this is a Hollywood blockbuster, so a thing like that is tossed aside to make Frank Sinatra look good! It is rubbish, but I can overlook it just to buy into the films escapism element.

 But overall the inaccuracies are minor. I would quibble more if the film had pretensions in actually being based on real events, but it isn't, so what the hell. I think the war setting is actually well realised. But look at Sinatra at times! When he crashes his leather jacket is pristine and remains so throughout he film. This is also incredibly unlikely. If he had been flying missions it would look beaten up and not look as if it had just left the factory! I won't even mention the immaculate, stain free green flying overalls he wears in one scene!! Also toward the end, in the tunnel fight ,his brown trousers are immaculate! I mean he had been wearing theme all film, and yet they look freshly laundered!

 But visuals and inaccuracies aside they don't really take anything away from the film. As a high adventure film is more than succeeds. The novel it is based on is a fine one, based on the author's own wartime knowledge. But what really sees Von Ryan's Express work is the acting of Trevor Howard, and especially Frank Sinatra. Fortunately Sinatra doesn't overpower the film with his ego or star power, and the whole cast works well. The premise is great and makes for a tense escape film, with enough full on action to please all.

 I haven't watched the film in over two decades, let alone read the novel again in that time. I thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting this classic and think it has stood the test of time extremely well. For me it is a good example of a fine 1960's big budget blockbuster. Many film makers of today should take note of how well  made this is. Simpy because they cannot seem to replicate what makes a film like this so entertaining.

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  1. A friend of mine has wholeheartedly recommended this to me... I think it was more than a year ago. I have a bunch of old films I want to see, but I never seem to find the time. *sigh*

  2. It is a very, very good film. It is a good example of how a big budget blockbuster can and should be made, and still be a quality film in the process.
    Beleive me Sinatra is superb but then he is ably backed up by an equally superb Howard.
    I'm watching a lot of classics at the moment becasue it is cheaper than going to a cinema. I can hire three classic DVD's for the price of one cinema ticket!

  3. One of my favorite films of all time, and my absolute favorite as a kid (I was 8 when this was released).