Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: Trevor Howard, Frank Sinatra, Rafaella Carrà and Wolfgang Preiss
Cleopatra, but rather than giving up they decided to green-light Von Ryan’s Express, a prisoner of war escape adventure not unlike The Great Escape which had met with great success two years earlier. The story was based on the novel by David Westheimer, but the primary inspiration for the film was the success of The Guns of Navarone with Gregory Peck. The studio was interested in Sinatra and eventually persuaded him to star in the film. And while there were rumors of discord between director Mark Robson and Sinatra, it certainly didn’t affect the filming in Europe. Though it’s not a particularly gripping film, it remains a favorite for fans of the singer.
The film begins in Italy in 1943 before the Allied invasion, with Frank Sinatra crash landing and pulled out of the burning plane by Italian soldiers who whisk him off to a POW camp under the noses of the Germans. The Italians, having lost their taste for war, are still under the thumb of the Nazis, and so while they have no desire to punish the mostly British soldiers they have imprisoned they also can’t be seen as soft by their Nazi overlords. Trevor Howard is the commanding officer of the prisoners and Sinatra takes exception with the fact that they are still making escape attempts, and being punished for it, when the liberation by the Allies is so close. But Howard, always the Brit, sees it differently. Things don’t come to a head until the Americans in camp are caught stealing “escape rations.” It turns out Howard has been hoarding food and medicine while men in sickbay are suffering. Sinatra isn’t having any of it and as ranking officer in the camp orders Howard to distribute it to the sick men. That, in combination with ending the escape attempts, gets him concessions from the Italian major, Adolfo Celi, but once the Allies get close to the camp Howard captures Celi and intends to court-martial him and hang him. Again, Sinatra says no.
While Sinatra takes the four hundred prisoners of the camp and heads for the coast, the Nazis take a look at the deserted camp, find Celi, and are led by him right to the prisoners. The Nazis load all of them on a train heading north into Italy and away from the Allies. This, then, is Von Ryan’s express, trying to figure out a way to take over the train and where they’ll go once they do. The film was shot mostly on location in Italy and Spain, with some of the interiors done at the Fox studios in California. Director Mark Robson began his career in Hollywood at RKO in the Val Lewton horror film unit, beginning with The Seventh Victim. He already had a popular war film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, under his belt and had been nominated for two Oscars prior to being given this film. His style is adequate, but by no means memorable. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith also suffers from a lackluster attempt at distinctiveness. The main theme strives for something like Elmer Bernstein’s in The Great Escape but falls well short. It would not be until Patton that the composer would score a memorable soundtrack for a war film, earning him an Academy Award nomination.
Sinatra, from the vantage point of fifty years later, seems like a poor choice for the lead. He was already fifty years old and it shows, and his being a newly minted officer in the air corps seems incredibly unlikely even for World War Two. Trevor Howard suffers from the same problem, and in the inevitable comparison to Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai he comes up decidedly short. The attempts at humor in the film also seem weirdly out of place, especially with Celi being a little too reminiscent of Peter Sellers. Some memorable members of the supporting cast were Edward Mulhare as the chaplain who impersonates a Nazi, John Leyton who had been in The Great Escape, and the great Wolfgang Preiss as the ranking Nazi on the train. The name of the film comes from a taunt by the British prisoners who, because of his undermining Howard’s authority in the camp, intimate that Sinatra’s character, Ryan, is on the side of the Germans. Von Ryan’s Express is a game attempt at an epic sixties war film that ultimately falls short. It’s interesting for Sinatra fans, but not for fans of great war films.