During its heyday, the World War II set mission movie enjoyed many an all star cast as the war was won seemingly on every conceivable terrain known to man and solely by disparate groups of people racing against a ticking clock and Nazi bullets. Everyone from Gregory Peck, to Kurt Douglas, to Steve McQueen, to Donald Sutherland, to Clint Eastwood, to Harrison Ford (and many more) was in at least one of these things and it almost seemed to be a badge of honor for a particular breed of celebrity to steal a uniform off a German soldier and hurl themselves behind enemy lines in order to score a much needed W in order to bring Hitler’s reich crashing down.
If you needed any more proof of this, all you have to do is catch a glimpse of the top of the cast list for POW movie, Von Ryan’s Express, and see that it wasn’t only Hollywood royalty that wanted a crack at old Adolf, but the Chairman of the Board fancied taking a swing himself…
After being shot down over Italy, Colonal Joseph Ryan finds himself summarily dispatch to a predictably grotty prisoner of war camp that’s currently in the midst of some political turmoil. Primarily filled with British soldiers from the 9th Fusiliers, the prisoners are up in arms over the death of their commanding officer after he was placed in the camp’s “sweat box” on the orders of the pompous Major Battaglia and, as well as demanding justice, also have multiple escape plans in action all over the camp. Currently led by the highest ranking officer, Major Eric Fincham, Ryan pulls rank and voluntarily gives up the escape plans to the Major and his empathic second in command Captain Oriani when he discovers that vital medicine is being kept away from malaria sufferers in order to be horded for an escape.
This seeming act of treachery earns Joseph the nickname of “Von Ryan”, however, when news breaks that the Italians have surrendered, it seems that an escape plan is going ahead whether anyone likes it or not, but after yet another act of mercy from Ryan involves them being re-caught by the Nazi’s, the Colonal’s stock has never been lower. However, merciful “Von Ryan” may be, but he’s also incredibly tenacious and after kick starting another plan that sees them gaining control of the prisoner train they’re being transported on (A POW camp and a train in only a couple of days? Surely that’s got to be some sort of record!), the inner circle of Ryan, Fincham, German speaking camp chaplain Constanzo and a defected Oriani figure a way to trick the entire Nazi army until they can roll the train all the way to Switzerland and safety.
Seeing Ol’ Blue Eyes squaring up to the Nazis wasn’t really that much of a surprise, especially considering that the world famous crooner had been squeezing movies in and around his Vegas commitments and absorbing copious amounts of Jack Daniels for over ten years. However, what was surprising is that this legitimately tense escape movie wasn’t some kind of vanity project that saw the leader of the Rat Pack badda-binging his way effortlessly through the Nazi hordes but instead was made up for its serious nature with a script whose Knuckles get progressively whiter as it gains momentum as it rumbles on down the tracks.
Sinatra, shorn of a natty tux and any reason to put those famous pipes in action, is an entirely passable lead, his natural charisma carrying him through the fact he’s rather a stiff performer – however, this sort of actually pays off when you consider that he’s forced to trudge on with his plans even though everyone in a thirty foot radius hates his freakin’ guts. It’s a brave role to take, lightyears away from the finger clicking swagger of an Ocean’s Eleven that sees The Voice put in a position where the people around him give him the suspicious side-eye everytime he tries to do something for the greater good and the script constantly throws endless obstacles (sometimes literally) into his path. His compatriots (and I say that with a certain amount of sarcasm), are forced to follow simply because he outranks them and are made up of the outraged barking of Trevor Howard and the passive faith of Edward Mulhare whom 80’s kids will no doubt recognize as Devon Miles from Knight Rider and the two capably prop up Sinatra whenever he needs some support with the drama.
However, while the majority of the POW’s don’t have two personalities to rub together, where the script excels is in the ever unfolding string of events that is set in motion the second Ryan’s plane plows into the scenic Italian countryside that starts of slow and thrn mercilessly tightens the screw until you’re literally grinding your teeth at the breakneck finale. At first you think you’re in for your bargin basement, prisoner of war, shenanigans where a leather jacketed American has to gain the respect of a some by-the-book Brits while standing up to the guy in charge (former Bond villain Aldolfo Celi) using his wits, but the fact that his actions constantly leave everyone doubting his capabilities creates an interesting wrinkle that makes everything else incredibly engaging. Yes, the camp scenes run pretty slow and their initial escape seems noticably convenient, but the second everyone in loaded onto the train and Ryan’s grey matter starts formulating, the film shifts gears and gains more and more speed as it goes. Be it Fincham’s varying trust, the capturing of the train (which, amusingly, isn’t a million miles away from the convict’s master plan in Con Air), the gentle chaplain having to pass himself off a multiple checkpoints as a German Major, the attempted escape of a Germa officer and his Italian squeeze and even a hand wringing scene where the titular train is strafed by a trio of eager Messerschmitts, the flick stubbornly refuses to let up all the way to its surprisingly abrupt and heartbreaking ending.
While other, similar, movies are sometimes straight forward affairs, content to mow down the enemy in their dozens, Von Ryan’s Express has a somewhat more measured approach, testing its lead’s forgiving nature and continuously punishing him for trying to do the right thing, be it spare the life of Battaglia or execute a fleeing woman who is certain to (pun not intended) blow the whistle on the whole shebang which gives this enterprise more thoughtful layers than most of its gung ho peers.
Adding a fair amount of grit to the usual, boy’s own type adventures, Von Ryan’s Express is a massively engaging thriller that only gets more exciting the more it gathers steam.