Von Ryan’s Express (1965)


Introduction

Von Ryan’s Express is a 1965 World War II adventure film starring Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, and Raffaella Carrà, and directed by Mark Robson.

Produced in CinemaScope, the film depicts a group of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) who conduct a daring escape by hijacking the freight train carrying the POWs and fleeing through German-occupied Italy to Switzerland. Based on the 1964 novel by David Westheimer, the film changes several aspects of the novel, most notably the ending, which is considerably more upbeat in the book.

Financially, it became one of Sinatra’s most successful films.

Outline

Colonel Joseph Ryan, a USAAF P-38 pilot, is shot down over Italy and taken to a POW camp. Ryan insists that the camp commander, Major Basilio Battaglia salute him as a superior officer, which the sympathetic second-in-command, Captain Vittorio Oriani, translates. Most prisoners are British from the 9th Fusiliers. Their previous commanding officer recently died due to being placed in the “sweat box” as punishment for hitting Battaglia. Major Eric Fincham is the senior British officer until Ryan, being senior, arrives and assumes command.

Italy is close to surrender, and Ryan declines to support Fincham’s escape attempts. When Fincham captures American prisoners stealing medical supplies from a British secret hoard, Ryan orders Fincham to distribute the medicines to the seriously ill prisoners.

He infuriates Fincham by revealing an escape plan to Battaglia in exchange for prisoners being treated better. When Battaglia refuses to issue new clothing, Ryan orders prisoners to strip and burn their filthy uniforms. Battaglia throws Ryan into the sweat box as punishment.

When Italy surrenders, the guards flee; the British promptly try Battaglia as a war criminal. He portrays himself as a broken man who has repudiated fascism. Rather than executing him, Ryan sentences him to the sweat box.

A German fighter plane overflies the camp, forcing Ryan and the men to flee into the Italian countryside with Oriani’s help. They hide out in some ruins while Ryan attempts to contact Allied forces. The next morning, the Germans recapture the prisoners and load them onto a northbound train. Fincham assumes Oriani betrayed them until he is found severely battered aboard the train’s prisoner carriage. The Germans then shoot all ill prisoners. Fincham blames Ryan for letting Battaglia live, and derogatively calls him “von Ryan”. The train travels to Rome, where a German officer, Major von Klemment, takes command.

Ryan pries up the railcar floorboards. That night, when the train stops, Ryan, Fincham, and Lieutenant Orde sneak out and kill several guards. They free a boxcar load of POWs, who help them kill the remaining guards whose uniforms they then don as a disguise. Ryan and Fincham capture von Klemment and his mistress, Gabriella. As the train moves out, another train follows. Von Klemment reveals that the second train is carrying German troops and is on the same schedule. Further, von Klemment is to receive orders at each railway station. A German-speaking Allied chaplain, Captain Costanzo, impersonates the German commander to ensure their passage through the next station in Florence.

Through documents received in Florence, they learn that both trains are headed towards Innsbruck, Austria. Through trickery and a quickly forged typewritten order, the prisoners switch their train onto a different line at Bologna. The troop train continues on toward Innsbruck. Von Klemment and Gabriella are kept bound and gagged, but they escape at a stop, killing Orde. Both are shot by Ryan and the train proceeds.

Later, German commanders learn of the train’s diversion and begin queries. That night the train stops at what is thought to be a clearing and the men get off to head for safety; aircraft, which Ryan identifies as Lancaster bombers appear overhead and begin bombing the area. Ryan orders everyone back on the train. The train restarts and passes an Axis oil storage yard being bombed by the Allied aircraft. Several cars catch fire, and the train must stop to aid wounded and release burning boxcars.

With three dead and some sixty wounded, Oriani and the train’s Italian engineer tell Ryan and Finchum that the only option is to reroute the train at Milan to neutral Switzerland. Waffen-SS troops, led by Colonel Gortz, have discovered the earlier ruse and await the train, but are slowed when Oriani and the men disable a signal box at Milan, knocking out the track diagrams inside the control center. The prisoners reroute the train northwest through manual switching and drive straight through without stopping.

When the train diagrams are finally reactivated, Gortz realises he has been outmanoeuvred and leads troops in pursuit. As the Alps appear, the prisoner train is attacked by German aircraft, rocket fire collapsing boulders onto a section of track. The POWs replace the damaged rail and then pry loose more rail behind them in hopes of overturning the approaching German train, but the Germans see the sabotage and stop in time. As the SS race up from behind. Ryan, Fincham, and others stay behind to hold off the Germans, but many are killed in the battle, including Bostick. The prisoner train moves out as the men run for the moving rear platform with the Germans in pursuit. Most make it onto the train, but Ryan is killed by gunfire still running for the train as it approaches Switzerland.

Cast

  • Frank Sinatra as Colonel Joseph L. Ryan.
  • Trevor Howard as Major Eric Fincham.
  • Raffaella Carrà as Gabriella.
  • Brad Dexter as Sergeant Bostick.
  • Sergio Fantoni as Captain Oriani.
  • John Leyton as Lieutenant Orde.
  • Edward Mulhare as Captain Costanzo, the priest.
  • Wolfgang Preiss as Major von Klemment.
  • James Brolin as Private Ames.
  • John van Dreelen as Colonel Gortz.
  • Adolfo Celi as Major Bassilio Battaglia.
  • Vito Scotti as Peppino the Italian engineer.
  • Richard Bakalyan as Corporal Giannini.
  • Michael Goodliffe as Captain Stein.
  • Michael St. Clair as Sergeant Dunbar.
  • Ivan Triesault as Obergruppenfuhrer Wilhelm von Kleist.

Production

Original Novel

The novel was published in 1963. The novelist David Westheimer had been a POW during World War II. He witnessed the bombing of Bolzano in 1943 from a box car. Martin Levin, reviewing the book for the New York Times, said the novel “has everything for the screen but the camera directions.”

Development

The novel was a best seller and film rights were bought by 20th Century Fox for a reported $125,000. The studio assigned Saul David to produce and Mark Robson to direct. Robson had intended to make The Centurians, but this was delayed when his chosen star, Anthony Quinn, was unavailable. Frank Sinatra had read the novel and wanted to buy the film rights himself; when he heard they had been lost to Fox, he offered his services for the lead role.

Von Ryan’s Express was a project keenly undertaken by 20th Century Fox, which was still financially reeling after the extravagance and critical bashing of Cleopatra. Fox, in a bid to prove that they were still able to make films on an epic scale, shot extensively on location in Europe and built a full-scale prison camp as opposed to shooting on a backlot. It was producer Saul David’s first film for Fox. He followed it with Our Man Flint, Fantastic Voyage, and In Like Flint.

Shooting

Rumours of a personality clash between star Frank Sinatra, who was flown by helicopter to the set, and director Mark Robson were not enough to cause problems as the film was shot with relatively little trouble. However, Sinatra did insist that the ending of the film be altered, ending any chance of a sequel. Sinatra also insisted the film be shot in Panavision rather than Fox’s CinemaScope.

The film score was written by Jerry Goldsmith.

Von Ryan’s Express achieved reality using aircraft, trains and wheeled vehicles photographed on location along with the occasional model. The aircraft alluded to as Messerschmitts were indeed Messerschmitt Bf 108s. A majority of the film was shot on location around Northern Italy in Cortina d’Ampezzo and Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence (in reality is Roma Ostiense railway station). The Ferrovie dello Stato/Italian State Railway closely cooperated on the production, as reflected in the film’s closing acknowledgment credit, providing a complete train headed by the specially-bulled up FS Class 735.236. The train which the Nazis commandeer to pursue the escaping POWs is headed by a Franco-Crosti boiler-fitted Class 743.

The railway sequence at the film’s conclusion, however, was shot in the Caminito del Rey walkway in the limestone gorge of El Chorro and in the adjacent railway bridge, near Málaga in Andalucía, Spain. This switch from filming in Italy was probably done as the bridge looked more suitably attractive for presenting the final set piece than anything that could be found on the Italian rail network. The train featuring in these sequences was laid on by the RENFE/Spanish National Railways and altered to resemble the Italy-based train. Interiors were completed at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles. The POW camp (Campo Concentramento Prigioneri di Guerra 202) was also built in the front lot of the Studios.

Release

Box Office

The film grossed $17,111,111 ($147,133,872 in 2021 consumer dollars) at the North American box office, equating to $7,700,000 ($66,210,243 in 2021 consumer dollars) taken in box office rentals. Variety ranked Von Ryan’s Express as the 10th-highest-grossing film of 1965. Additionally, this was Sinatra’s highest-grossing and biggest-earning film of the decade.

According to Fox records, the film needed to earn $12,600,000 in rentals to break even and made over $17,000,000, meaning it made a profit.

Awards

The film was nominated for a Best Sound Editing (Walter Rossi) Academy Award in 1966,[18] while the Motion Picture Sound Editors also nominated the film for Best Sound Editing in a Feature Film.

British Channel 4 ranked Von Ryan’s Express number 89 on their list of 100 Greatest War Films, commenting, “A ripping yarn culminating in a wild train dash through [Italy], with director Mark Robson cranking up the tension and releasing it with some excellent action set-pieces.” It has a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 20 reviews.

Trivia

  • Michael Goodliffe, who plays Captain Stein, was an actual Prisoner of War during WWII.
    • He was captured at Dunkirk and spent the next five years in a German POW camp.
  • The leather jacket that Frank Sinatra wore in this movie was later worn by Bob Crane in Hogan’s Heroes (1965).
    • It was later worn by Greg Kinnear in Auto Focus (2002).
    • Vito Scotti who portrayed the engineer of the train also portrayed an Italian POW Camp Commandant Major Botticelli in an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes.”
    • He also commanded an Italian POW camp for general officers in the movie “The Secret War of Harry Frigg”.
  • The author of the book, David Westheimer, was a navigator on a B-24 that was shot down over Italy in WWII and he was a POW in Stalag Luft III.
  • The young actor John Leyton, who guides Ryan through a series of trap doors and secret passages, also played Willie, one of the ‘Tunnel Kings’ in The Great Escape (1963) just two years earlier.
  • The crew were flown back to Hollywood at great expense when studio head Richard D. Zanuck decided to have the Italian POW camp constructed in California.
    • It would also be used for an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964).
    • The POW camp was constructed on Twentieth Century-Fox’s lot in Hollywood, and five of the train’s boxcars were shipped to the studio from Europe.
  • Mia Farrow was introduced to Frank Sinatra when she visited her friend John Leyton on the set.
    • Farrow had co-starred with Leyton earlier that year when the actress made her screen debut in another British military drama, “Guns at Batasi” (1964).
    • She and Sinatra later married.
  • Frank Sinatra’s salary was $250,000.
  • After reading the novel, Frank Sinatra bid on the film rights, only to be beaten by Twentieth Century-Fox’s bid of $125,000.
    • He then contacted the studio and offered himself for the lead.
  • According to Saul David’s memoirs, Frank Sinatra was desperate to have Richard Burton as his co-star.
    • Sinatra was not aware, however, that the studio, 20th Century Fox, were in the middle of a bitter court case with Burton and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, over the massive cost overruns on Cleopatra (1963), and would not even entertain the thought of hiring Burton.
    • Sinatra had made plenty of overtures to Burton in the hope he would sign on, and he was furious that he had wasted his time and effort.
  • Adolfo Celi, who plays Major Battaglia, became somewhat iconic that same year playing the one-eyed villain Largo in the James Bond film, “Thunderball”

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Mark Robson.
  • Producer(s):
    • Saul David … producer.
    • Mark Robson … producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • David Westheimer … (novel).
    • Wendell Mayes … (screenplay).
    • Joseph Landon … (screenplay).
    • David Westheimer … (screenplay) (uncredited).
    • Saul David … (screenplay) (uncredited).
  • Music:
    • Jerry Goldsmith.
  • Cinematography:
    • William H. Daniels … director of photography.
  • Editor(s):
    • Dorothy Spencer.
  • Production:
    • P-R Productions Picture (as A P-R Productions Picture).
  • Distributor(s):
    • Twentieth Century Fox (1965) (USA) (theatrical) (released by) (as Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation).
    • Twentieth Century Fox Film Company (1965) (UK) (theatrical).
    • Fox Films (1965) (Argentina) (theatrical).
    • Twentieth Century Fox (1965) (France) (theatrical).
    • Fox Films (1965) (Finland) (theatrical).
    • Twentieth Century Fox (1965) (Japan) (theatrical).
    • Twentieth Century Fox (1965) (Netherlands) (theatrical).
    • Fox Films (1978) (USA) (theatrical) (re-release).
    • Magnetic Video (1980) (USA) (VHS) (pan and scan).
    • CBS/Fox (1987) (USA) (VHS) (pan and scan).
    • CBS/Fox (1988) (Argentina) (VHS) (pan/scan).
    • Oy Europa Vision AB (1988) (Finland) (VHS).
    • Fox Video (1994) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
    • Nelonen (1997) (Finland) (TV).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (1998) (USA) (VHS).
    • Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment (1999) (Netherlands) (VHS).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2001) (USA) (DVD).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2002) (Brazil) (DVD).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2002) (USA) (DVD).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2002) (USA) (VHS).
    • FS Film (2006) (Finland) (DVD).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2007) (USA) (DVD).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2014) (USA) (DVD) (included in “4 War Film Favorites”).
    • WVG Medien (2017) (Germany) (Blu-ray).
    • WVG Medien (2017) (Germany) (DVD).
    • Centfox (1965) (West Germany) (theatrical).
    • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (2005) (Germany) (DVD).
    • CBS/Fox Home Video (1984) (Australia) (video).
    • CBS/Fox (1984) (West Germany) (VHS).
  • Release Date: 23 June 1965.
  • Rating: PG.
  • Running Time: 117 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

Video Link(s)

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