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Monday, February 22, 2016

Von Ryan's Express

Somebody should do a study, or maybe there already has been one, about the popularity of POW films during the 1960s. The Great Escape kicked things off in '63, and in '65 there was King Rat, set in the Pacific, and Von Ryan's Express, set in Europe. Each one has a similar theme--allies from various countries pitching together to thwart a common foe (King Rat did not feature an escape attempt, though). The TV series, Hogan's Heroes, followed. Was it the timing? It had been twenty years since the war ended, perhaps some World War II nostalgia was kicking in.

Von Ryan's Express is a fairly standard escape picture except it is set aboard a train. Frank Sinatra plays Col. Ryan, an American flyer shot down over Italy. He's set to an Italian prison camp. He finds most of the prisoners are British, and they are resolute in their attempts to escape, even after reprisals from the buffoonish commander (Aldolfo Celi). Sinatra, who becomes the highest ranking officer, tells his British counterpart, Trevor Howard, to cool it, and maybe they'll get treated better. This is met with disgust by Howard. The Brits jeeringly call him Von Ryan, suggesting he's sympathetic with the Germans.

The Italians surrender, though, and the prisoners are free, but are quickly picked up by Germans and put aboard a train. Sinatra and Howard, along with the chaplain (Edward Mulhare) and an Italian captain, take over the train, and the rest of the film is them trying to slip past the Nazis into Switzerland.

Von Ryan's Express is kind of fun, mindless escapism, especially those who like World War II films without too much heaviness. We get Sinatra and Howard coming to grudging respect for each other. Mulhare speaks German, so he impersonates an officer, and there's lots of shooting (the film was nominated for a Best Sound Oscar). What you don't get is much realism or reflection.

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