US Release Date: 06-23-1965
Directed by: Mark Robson
- Frank Sinatra, as
- Col. Joseph L. Ryan
- Trevor Howard, as
- Maj. Eric Fincham
- Raffaella Carra, as
- Brad Dexter, as
- Sgt. Bostick
- Sergio Fantoni, as
- Capt. Oriani
- John Leyton, as
- Edward Mulhare, as
- Capt. Costanzo
- Wolfgang Preiss, as
- Maj. Von Klemment
- James Brolin as
- Pvt. Ames
Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard in Von Ryan's Express.
In the mid 60's Frank Sinatra's career was based on Las Vegas shows, television specials and some mediocre Rat Pack movies. It was the Autumn of his heyday. However, 2 young women kept his name in the headlines. One was his daughter Nancy, whom he had a #1 hit with and the other was his, young enough to be his daughter, wife Mia Farrow. During this interesting time in his career he went off alone to Italy to make one of his last good movies, Von Ryan's Express.
Von Ryan's Express tells the story of an American pilot shot down and put into a prison during World War II. The prison is mostly made up of British soldiers but Ryan is the highest ranking officer so he is in charge. Ryan pisses off plenty of the British with his decisions, but he gets results. However, upon the guards desertion and the prisoners escaping, Ryan makes a decision that eventually gets people killed and the prisoners captured and put on a train bound for Germany.
At this point the movie is a straight out suspense, action adventure. The allied prisoners take over the train and pose as Germans as they attempt to take the train to Switzerland. They get attacked by enemy planes and pursued by another train filled with German soldiers. People you may not expect to get killed, do.
A real bonus to this movie is the incredible scenery. The prisoners hide out in some real Roman ruins at one point. The train itself goes through some beautiful country, including the climax of the film in the Italian Alps.
Sinatra, although passed middle age here, plays the action hero well enough. He even has a couple of scenes where he has to show some emotion. However, the one law of this movie is that there is no characterization. We know that Ryan has balls. He stands up to the enemy and is cool under pressure. At no point do we learn anything about his background. Is he married? Does he have kids? Some more background into his character would have really helped.
The films other star is British actor Trevor Howard. Yet, you will probably recognize some of the faces in the background. Didn't the Italian train conductor do an episode of Gilligan's Island? The future Mr. Streisand, James Brolin, even gets screen credit. It's too bad he didn't even get one line of dialogue.
One of Sinatra's last good movies that proved that although he is a member of the rat pack and surrounded by famous woman, he was still a talent and a star of his own right.
Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan's Express.
Von Ryan's Express is one of those great action movies that always seem to be shown on television on rainy Sunday afternoons or late at night. It doesn't matter if you catch it in the beginning or in the middle. The story is straight forward and simple and doesn't require much attention to follow. As Eric said Sinatra is in his tough guy mode. He could play the scrappy old war veteran with the best of them. In this movie he is like a John Wayne character. Although he is, of course, remembered today as the tuxedo wearing Rat Packer or as Gene Kelly's naive sidekick, he also made quite a few action/war movies. From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate are probably the most famous of these, but in Eternity he had a supporting role and Manchurian Candidate is more of a psychological drama. Von Ryan's Express is a straight out action movie built almost entirely around his character.
The cinematography has held up well, particularly during the climax Eric referred to in the Italian Alps. This movie is much better when seen in its original wide-screen format. (But then what movie isn't?)
I disagree with Eric about people getting killed that you might not expect. I saw most of these deaths coming. And since this movie is nearly forty years old I am going to mention some spoilers. I guessed that Ryan would have to shoot Gabriella as she tried to run away and I also assumed that he would die at the end.
In modern movies things are much more balanced. But back in the swinging sixties good guys were good guys and bad guys were bad guys. This may be a less accurate view of the world but it makes for better cinema. Von Ryan's Express is simply a great example of a classic Hollywood war movie and one of the last of its kind.
Reportedly Sinatra requested the movie change the ending of the book.
I enjoyed the action and the location scenery was very well done and beautiful, but like you say Eric, there is very little characterization and I never felt as though I really knew Ryan. There are some things I can infer about him, but none of them are confirmed. He seems like a guy who is definitely not a career soldier. He's soft on the Italian Colonel at the beginning of the movie and refuses to kill the German or the Italian babe until he's forced to, which indicates a certain temperament, but doesn't reveal too many details about him.
An interesting thing about his character and the ending of the movie is that Sinatra reportedly wanted the ending changed. The book the movie is based on doesn't end the same way. Ryan survives in the book, but Sinatra felt that Ryan had to die to atone for shooting Gabriella. Just hearing that told me more about Sinatra than is ever revealed about Ryan. I have to confess that I didn't expect for him to die and it surprised me. And I thought for sure Gabriella would change sides and join the good guys, but sadly Frank forgot to sing to her. One verse of "When Somebody Loves You" and he could have saved himself a whole lot of trouble.
As both of you mentioned the cinematography and the scenery both add greatly to the movie. It makes it seem so much more realistic. You look at those old John Wayne movies and it's amazing how much Europe and the South Pacific look like southern California.
On the surface this is a good movie, but because I never really connected on an emotional level to the main characters I can't call it a great one. It lacks the depth that sparks repeat viewing so that having just seen it for the first time, I can confidently predict that it was also the last time.
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox (1965)