Winter 2018

The Cost of War

Guillermo del Toro revels in the proficiency and poignancy of John Frankenheimer's intimate WWII epic The Train


Burt Lancaster in John Frankenheimer's The Train (Photo: Photofest)

"It's a perfect movie," says director Guillermo del Toro as we settle into seats in a theater on the Twentieth Century Fox lot to watch John Frankenheimer's bruising World War II action epic The Train, about the French Resistance's effort to stop stolen art works from falling into the Nazis' hands. "It works at every level, as a piece of craftsmanship, and as an artistic piece about how much art is worth in human lives."

Though known primarily as a conjurer of fantastical worlds, as in Crimson Peak and his latest feature The Shape of Water, del Toro is at heart a polymath cineaste who understands how genre filmmaking can elevate any story. "This is one of the most important action movies, because it's all about movement," he says. "The central motif is a machine that never stops moving, and the movie is very much like the train: unstoppable, impressive and massive. He wants you to feel the visceral impact. It's all about vectors, with dollies, cranes, mini-jibs, every possible resource to move the camera beautifully. There's a two-fisted power that Frankenheimer brings to action that is quintessentially American."

A hushed opening in a Paris museum introduces Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), a champagne-sipping aesthete who wants France's great paintings hauled away by train to Germany, no matter the cost to a Nazi regime only days from being overtaken by the Allies. Railway inspector and Resistance leader Labiche (Lancaster) is then asked by a museum curator to save these treasures—"the soul of France"—a mission that blue-collar pragmatist Labiche doesn't initially grasp: "I won't waste lives on paintings," he barks.

"In setting up the villain first, the movie clearly states two points of view," says del Toro. "Lancaster is pro-human. Scofield cares about art but has no hint of the humanity of that art. It's telling that in the opening credits you have the sealing of the crates and the stenciling—Renoir, Monet—as if they were any other merchandise."

Moving to the railyard, Frankenheimer emphasizes the reality of actual French locations with a shot of Lancaster striding, surrounded by activity. As with most shots in The Train, the background is abuzz with people, machines and purpose. "It's a beautiful lateral movement that describes the entire railyards," del Toro notes. "The stark black-andwhite cinematography is gorgeous but not precious. It has a documentary edge."

Before the art train becomes a factor, though, we watch an elaborate sabotage in which a Nazi armaments train is delayed to coincide with a scheduled Allied bombing raid. Frankenheimer treats his trains like enormous cast members. One shot cranes in front of and above a moving locomotive, steam filling the frame, then dissipating like a curtain to reveal the train's length. "He starts shooting them almost like dinosaurs," says del Toro. "Beasts of metal. You feel the weight and movement. Several times in the film, Frankenheimer gets the lens dangerously close. What people need to take into account is that when you're staging a shot with a train, you can devastate hours of your schedule really fast. So you better get take one right."

Unbeknownst to Labiche, his irascible old mentor Papa Boule (Michel Simon) has chosen to recklessly drive the art train through the bombing raid. Noticing this from his watchtower, Labiche springs into action, and Frankenheimer shows off his 50-year-old star's athletic prowess in one jaw-dropping take. "Burt slides down a ladder, runs down the tracks, catches a moving train, boards it, and goes back by the lens," says del Toro, awe coloring his voice. "The precision of this needs superb groundwork. It's the most remarkable shot in the whole film."

Frankenheimer follows with an electric explosion montage from above and ground level, using 5,000 pounds of dynamite. Del Toro explains, "The French government wanted to get rid of some old buildings, so Frankenheimer very intelligently said, 'Let me destroy them on camera.' You may be tempted to think they are model shots, but they're not. No miniatures were used."

TRAINWRECK: (Top) The use of actual locomotives and boxcars, which Del Toro refers to "beasts of metal," adds heft and weight to Frankenheimer's The Train; (Bottom) Paul Scofield plays the Colonel von Waldheim, obsessed with shepherding stolen art treasures from the Louvre out of France before the Allies advance. (Photos: Photofest)

In a tense scene, von Waldheim and his henchman accuse Papa Boule in front of Labiche of sabotaging the art train. Del Toro points out Frankenheimer's "Mount Rushmore composition": big heads filmed with wide-angle lenses, heavy on a foreground face and a background face as the two sides argue. "Two Nazis, two Resistance fighters, profile to profile. These are the vectors. The wide-angle lens is incredibly dynamic but it's not flattering. Yet he chooses it very deliberately."

Papa Boule is taken away and shot, and Frankenheimer ends the scene on Labiche's stricken, soot-lined face, which dissolves with emotional punch into a shot of the foundry's raging fire. His mentor murdered, Labiche is now dead set on stopping von Waldheim's art train. Says del Toro, "Burt's stature is so superhuman, and yet his vulnerability is on par with it. I think he was described by the reviewers who first saw him as the wounded Colossus."

Immediately afterward, we watch Lancaster repairing a rod bearing himself, pouring the molten metal to cast it, shape it, then maneuver it with a crane. "He wants to show you the amount of technical detail that was researched for this film," says del Toro. "It's remarkable."

With von Waldheim's precious art cargo ready to be transported—and Labiche at the train's helm—the Resistance initiates their delaying scheme starting with a cat-and-mouse set piece in a small French town. Labiche's clandestine movements are nearly exposed, until a kindly inn owner (Jeanne Moreau)—catching his pleading eyes—covers for him. "The glue that holds movies together often is looks," explains del Toro. "This is one of those really subtle, beautiful looks, and Moreau has the most incredibly human eyes."

The film's central sabotage is an intricate ruse involving stations dressed up to trick the Nazis into thinking they're heading into Germany. Frankenheimer fools us, too—there's no "this is the plan" scene—but offers hints with passing-through shots that emphasize signs. "Without exposition, he's saying, pay attention to the signs," says del Toro. "He's tracking their evolution."

Eventually, one wide station shot lingers, then zooms in on water tower workers pulling a rope to uncover the real town name behind the fake town sign. Shortly after, in the Nazis' cabin, a zoom toward their map shows the German town they think they're in, before the camera jerk-pans in the opposite direction—just for us—to reveal they've been rerouted back into France. "A zoom is a very delicate tool. Because it's like writing in caps. I think when you try to hide it, it looks more pedestrian than when you're frank about it."

The scheme's last part requires trapping the art train with a purposefully derailed separate train. Frankenheimer had planned to capture that derailment with nine cameras, but a stuntman erringly increased the speed, and the train destroyed all the cameras except for one buried crash-cam, which secured a hair-raising head-on POV shot. "Look where the wheel ends, right next to the lens," says del Toro. "What you're left with is, that's a real train that really derailed."

Labiche vacates the art train before it crashes. In a shot added to cover for a golf injury Lancaster sustained that swelled up his leg, he runs across a bridge and is hit by Nazi machine gun fire from the moving art train. (Lancaster could then legitimately limp the rest of the film.) Naturally, Frankenheimer didn't make it easy. Del Toro assesses, "The camera is probably mounted on a platoon in the river. Burt has to reach the bridge exactly when the machine gun guy is on the top of the passing train, the squibs need to fire not too early or too late, but exactly when Burt goes by to 'injure' his leg. It's virtuoso, the staging."

PROFILES IN COURAGE: (Top) Frankenheimer directs the action as Scofield observes; (Middle) Jeanne Moreau as Christine shelters Labiche from the Nazis; (Bottom) The final confrontation between Lancaster's Labiche and his nemesis is improvised. (Photos: Photofest)

Once the art train is sandwiched with a stunningly edited and mounted crash sequence using actual locomotives and multiple cameras, del Toro muses, "If Orson Welles said ['Citizen Kane'] was the greatest toy train set a kid could want, Frankenheimer said, 'Let's make them full scale, then I'll play with them.'" Afterward, there's a long, crackerjack dolly shot from a crane on a powered cart, following an enraged von Waldheim chauffeured alongside the wreckage in a motorbike sidecar. Says del Toro, "This scene influenced a little scene in Pan's Labyrinth, in which the captain goes to see the derailed train. I didn't have the resources to derail a train—it's a destroyed locomotive set—but it's my little Mexican homage."

Eventually, von Waldheim secures another train, ironically protected from Allied bombing once word gets out valuable art is on board. But as this chess match of a movie nears its endgame, and Frankenheimer slows the pace, the suspense intensifies, and he doubles down on sheer physicality: a lone, hobbled Lancaster molding plastique, setting up a detonator in one take with the approaching train in the background, then traversing a hill with a gunshot wound.

It comes down to literally nuts and bolts—Labiche, a few miles ahead of von Waldheim, dismantling the track by hand with just a tool. "This is the kind of detail a modern action film would never spend time showing, one man unscrewing bolts against a lot of Nazis," says del Toro. "The way Frankenheimer tempos it, with frantic close-ups, wide shots of Nazis approaching, the train close to the lens, it's just masterful. It's a rhythmic assembly that's beautiful."

Labiche's last gambit pays off—the train rolls off the loosened tracks to come to its final stop. Von Waldheim, livid, insists the train is salvageable. His men don't agree. Says del Toro, "There is a saying that an epic can be armies against armies, or it can be about only two men, if each represent the totality. Right now, we're watching the downfall of the whole Nazi empire, you know? The disintegration of command."

Thwarted in his plan to have the art transported by a passing convoy of defeated Nazis in trucks, von Waldheim screams out as the camera tilts to suggest his madness. "Dutch angle," notes del Toro. "It's a simple device, maybe an old one, but he's using it masterfully."

Von Waldheim stays behind, and an officer orders the train's hostages slaughtered. The camera pans quickly from the machine gun firing to the riddled civilians. "You see the trucks moving away in deep background," del Toro adds about the shot. "Always something happening. It's a principle that's never relinquished." About the massacre, which leaves bodies strewn along the side of the road next to the abandoned crates of paintings, del Toro says, "It's a very existential ending. The art and the lives both mean the same, and don't mean much. It's very poignant, very bleak."

The final confrontation between von Waldheim and Labiche was improvised. Lancaster suggested the Nazi "talk himself into being shot," reports del Toro. "He says to Burt, 'You can't tell me why you did what you did,' and Burt looks back at the bodies, and then answers with his machine gun."

After Labiche shoots his nemesis, Frankenheimer closes with a mournful montage of the art crates and the murdered civilians, with just the distant clank of the cooling train on the soundtrack. "It's a painful, beautiful punctuation, almost like archetypal silent cinema," says del Toro. "No camera movement. No adornments. Frankenheimer goes still, and in an image or two encapsulates the madness of war, because at the end of the day, war is waged on principles, but it's measured in lives. And Lancaster walks away into the horizon, which is also why it's quintessentially an action movie."

He shakes his head and adds, ecstatically, "A goddamn perfect action movie."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring a Special Report exploring Content Distribution in the Streaming Age as well as interviews with Michael Apted, Reed Morano, Lily Olszewski, Martin Campbell, Kenneth Branagh, Pamela Adlon, and more!