Directed By: Mark Robson
Screenplay By: Joseph Landon, Wendell Mayes
Based on the novel by David Westheimer
Produced By: Saul David, Mark Robson
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Edward Mulhare, Adolfo Celi, Brad Dexter, Sergio Fantoni
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 117 minutes
Review Date: October 1, 2010
There are two types of war films: The ones that impart the visceral images and emotions of war, scornfully commenting on its place in the world. Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, in particular, come to mind. These films aren’t created so much to entertain as they are to educate, to leave the audience breathless at the visual and emotional power the violent battlefield holds for the men who fight for it. On the other end of the spectrum are films like Where Eagles Dare and Von Ryan’s Express, action thrillers that use the war setting merely as a backdrop to pepper an already zesty tale. Express is a prime example of this type of war film, as its boiler pot approach to the story adds the right amount of tension before bursting into an all out, teeth-clenching bullet-fest.
The film stars Frank Sinatra as American Air Force pilot Col. Joseph Ryan. Ryan’s plane is shot down in Nazi-occupied Italy during World War II and he is taken prisoner and sent to a camp run by the iron fisted Battaglia (played with gravitas by Adolfo Celi). Though Celi’s role is a small one, it stands out because of his convincing portrayal of a narcissistic, indiscriminate harbinger of lies and violence. In the camp, Ryan meets Major Fincham (Trevor Howard in a strong turn) who is the commanding officer amongst the British prisoners. Major Fincham threatens mutiny when Ryan declares his superior ranking over the soldiers, but Ryan redeems himself by making a humorous stand against the ill-mannered Battaglia. While this scene (which I wont spoil) should have exceeded absurdity, it instead appropriately breaks the tension that preceded it and acts as a decent segue into the second half of the story.
Condemned to the “Sweat Box” as an act of punishment, Ryan is unaware of the outside world for a few days. When he finally is released, he discovers that the guards have fled upon hearing of Italy’s capitulation in the war. The British soldiers have taken the camp and he is freed from his captivity. What follows renders what preceded it completely forgettable.
Ryan formulates a plan to escape Nazi-occupied territory involving a train so audacious and contrived that it’s absolutely necessary to turn your brain off in order to accept the proceedings. His plan involves derailment, taking over of guards, shoot-outs, explosives, and even masquerading as the enemy itself. The scenes where Capt. Costanzo (Edward Mulhare), a compatriot of Ryan’s, disguises himself as a German soldier are the films strongest moments. The tension is palpable, and director Mark Robson’s decision to eliminate subtitles in these sequences only adds to the confusion and fear these inexperienced Americans must have faced in this scenario. The film ends with an in your face, bullet for bullet exchange between Ryan and a whole German platoon (Including a trio of jets!). There is no way I can divulge the ending, but I will concede that it is absolutely, breathtakingly exciting.
Films do not come simpler than this. It starts off a little slow, and it’s unfortunate that its first act pales in comparison to the lustrous second half, but it’s essentially there to invest its audience in the characters and setting of the film. This is a great film for a casual night of entertainment.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.