The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964) is based on the memoir of Rose Valland, Le front de l’art: Défenses des collection Françaises, 1939-1945, in which she recalls a Nazi attempt to abscond with masterpieces of modern art before the Allies’ arrived to liberate Paris in 1944. Burt Lancaster stars as station master Paul Labiche, who is charged with getting the artworks to Germany, but who is also a Résistance cell leader tasked with simultaneously foiling the mission under watchful Nazi eyes. Labiche is initially unwilling to risk the lives of his men for art he has neither seen nor particularly values. What entails is an action-packed war thriller, at the heart of which is a battle of wills between Labiche and the German Colonel Franz Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), a man whose obsession with the art collection belies its official “degenerate” status under the crumbling Nazi regime. 

The Train was the fourth of five collaborations between Lancaster and director Frankenheimer. The pair first worked together on The Young Savages in 1961. Lancaster was unhappy with being paired with a television director (albeit a very well respected one) but felt obliged to accept the arrangement given his company was in debt to United Artists. Frankenheimer’s frosty treatment from his lead actor gave little indication that they would ever work together again. Frankenheimer recalls that after “the last shot, he just walked off the set”1. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Lancaster liked the final film, and requested Frankenheimer take over direction from Charles Crichton on The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), for which the actor received an Oscar nomination2.

Similarly, The Train was not originally intended for Frankenheimer, but rather Arthur Penn, who was also a well-established television director at the time and had recently picked up a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Miracle Worker (1962). Penn dutifully headed off to Paris and cast Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau (as inn worker and potential love interest Christine), and Michel Simon (as Labiche’s co-worker and father figure, Papa Boule), as well as bringing on board production designer Willy Holt, cinematographer Jean Tournier, and assistant director Bernard Farrel3. It was, from the outset, very much Penn’s team. Lancaster arrived and shot only one scene with Penn before dismissing him. Lancaster, never known for his patience on set, was frustrated both with Penn’s desire to shoot multiple takes from different angles, and the director’s request to try different acting techniques4. On a more fundamental level, the two had very different perspectives on the film. For Penn, it was a story about the value of art, in which the trains were of little importance in themselves – and indeed the train loaded with artwork did not even leave the station until around page 110 of the original script5. Lancaster, by contrast, wanted an action-packed mainstream hit, particularly after the severely cut English version of Il gattopardo (The Leopard, Luchino Visconti, 1963) failed to attract a large enough US audience. 

The script for The Train was originally penned by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, and Walter Bernstein, the latter of whom walked away from the project in protest after Penn was fired6. Closing down the production, Lancaster and Frankenheimer collaborated to rework the story structure, while Frankenheimer brought on the blacklisted writers Ned Young and Howard Dimsdale for the substantial rewrite, neither of whom were credited. According to Frankenheimer, he and Lancaster collaboratively improvised several scenes on location that never appeared in the script7. Coen and Davis were subsequently nominated for a Best Screenplay Academy Award.

As Stephen Bowie notes, Frankenheimer’s compelling direction on The Manchurian Candidate (1962) tends to overshadow the rest of his work. But Frankenheimer considered himself best at “character-based action movies”, of which The Train remains a prime example8. The role of Résistance railworkers had previously been depicted in René Clément’s 1946 film La bataille du rail9, and in turn The Train expands upon Valland’s account of the art train affair with grand set-pieces that reflect the broader history of the railyards during the war10. While it may include improvised sequences featuring Lancaster and Scofield, the film is characterised by intricately planned on-location action sequences with real trains and real explosives, shot with “massive coverage” of up to 12 cameras at a time (several of which were broken during shooting)11. This gives the film a vibrant immediacy, particularly when combined with Frankenheimer’s characteristic use of long takes and crisp deep-focus black-and-white photography by Tournier and Walter Wottitz.

There is a certain irony in making a black-and-white film that ostensibly revolves around the fate of distinctly colourful works of art such as Paul Gauguin’s Nafea faa ipoipo (When Will You Marry?, 1892). Art curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) tells Von Waldheim she constantly feared the collection would not survive the war: “I knew of books being burned. Other things.”12 This is a fleeting if implicit reference to the Holocaust13, and Villard’s statement sets in motion the film’s uneasy consideration of the value of art when weighed against human lives. The working-class Labiche, for his part, is motivated by revenge and national pride, and most definitely not Von Waldheim’s love of art14. Labiche and Von Waldheim nonetheless come to mirror one another in their increasing obsessiveness. There is a distinctly sombre element to their shared grit that builds to engulf the film, displacing the importance of the art they are supposed to be fighting over.

Lancaster was 50 at the time of filming, but still in such good shape that he performed his own stunts, even after he suffered an off-set sporting injury to his knee. As Frankenheimer recalls: “Burt of course was in his element falling from trains, sliding down ladders, climbing walls”15. There are significant sections of the film where Labiche says nothing at all, relying purely on Lancaster’s physicality. Lancaster postponed knee surgery to complete the film, and several crewmembers (including Frankenheimer himself) came perilously close to death during the filming of the action sequences. Only in retrospect did Frankenheimer realise that he and Lancaster had become “obsessed” themselves16. What price art? indeed.

Lancaster got his action-packed adventure film but not quite the box-office hit he craved, particularly at home. Made for $6.7 million, it brought in $3 million in the US and $6 million in the foreign market17. Looking back from the vantage point of a film industry in which both action and war films are now characterised predominantly by computer effects, there is, by comparison, a captivating tangibility to The Train that the audience of 1964 may have failed to fully appreciate. It may have been purely serendipitous that the French had an entire railyard that they wanted demolished at the time the film was made, but one nonetheless suspects we shall never see the likes of this again.

The Train (1964 USA 133 mins)

Prod Co: Les Films Ariane/Les Productions Artistes Associés/Dear Film Produzione/Vides Cinematografica Prod: Jules Bricken Dir: John Frankenheimer Scr: Franklin Coen, Frank Davis, Walter Bernstein, Ned Young [uncredited], Howard Dimsdale [uncredited], based on the novel Le front de l’art by Rose Valland Phot: Jean Tournier, Walter Wottitz Ed: David Bretherton Prod Des: Willy Holt Mus: Maurice Jarre

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon, Michel Simon, Wolfgang Preiss


  1. Timothy Rhys, 1996, “John Frankenheimer Survives Hollywood”, Movie Maker (2 April 1996): https://www.moviemaker.com/john-frankenheimer-survives-hollywood-3152/.
  2. Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, New York, Knopf, 2000, 209.
  3. Nat Segaloff, Arthur Penn: American Director, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2011, 117.
  4. Segaloff, 118; Buford, 237.
  5. Buford, 236; Charles Champlin, John Frankenheimer: A Conversation With Charles Champlin, Burbank, Riverwood Press, 1995, 82. The exact page number varies across different Frankenheimer interviews.
  6. Buford, 237; Segaloff, 236.
  7. Champlin, 83-85.
  8. Stephen Bowie, “Frankenheimer, John”, Senses of Cinema, 41 (November 2006): https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2006/great-directors/frankenheimer/; Gary D. Engle and John Frankenheimer, “John Frankenheimer: An Interview”, Film Criticism, 2.1 (1977): 9.
  9. Adrian Danks, “Border Crossings: Placing René Clément’s La Bataille du rail”, Senses of Cinema, 27 (July 2003): https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/cteq/la_bataille_du_rail/.
  10. Matthew H. Bernstein, “The Train: John Frankenheimer’s ‘Rape of Europa’”, A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film, ed. Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2011, 63-68.
  11. Rhys.
  12. Valland became Mademoiselle Villard in the film.
  13. Jordan Hoffman, “The Monuments Men: A Story So Good, Burt Lancaster Told It 50 Years Ago,” Vanity Fair (5 February 2014): https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/02/monuments-men-the-train.
  14. By contrast, Lancaster was himself a proud art collector, owning works by artists such as Leger, Renoir, Rousseau, and Chagall. See Buford, 216.
  15. Stephen B. Armstrong, “The Train”, John Frankenheimer: Interviews, Essays, and Profiles, Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
  16. Champlin, 88.
  17. Tino Balio, United Artists, Volume 2, 1951–1978: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, 279.

About The Author

Djoymi Baker is Lecturer in Cinema Studies at RMIT University, Australia. She is the author of To Boldly Go: Marketing the Myth of Star Trek (IB Tauris 2018) and the co-author of The Encyclopedia of Epic Films (Rowman & Littlefield 2014).

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