Monday, April 26, 2010

Von Ryan's Express: The Other Great POW Escape Film of the 1960s

For 45 years now, The Great Escape has cast a long shadow over Von Ryan’s Express—so it’s about time someone shed some light on the lesser-known latter film. Released in 1965, just two years after The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express also tells the tale of a daring escape from a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp during World War II. While both films split their running times between scenes inside the camp and outside the fence (once the prisoners break out), the similarity ends there. For me, the most gripping scenes of The Great Escape involve the building of the tunnel. Conversely, Von Ryan’s Express takes off when the escaped prisoners hijack a German train.

The film opens in Italy in 1943 when an Italian unit captures downed American pilot Colonel Joseph L. Ryan (Frank Sinatra). When he arrives at the POW camp, Ryan finds a stubborn group of mostly British soldiers led by Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). The camp’s Italian commandant has mistreated the prisoners as punishment for their repeated escape attempts. As a result, the prisoners’ former commanding officer has died in a sweat box, malaria and scurvy are rampant, and food rations have been cut in half.

Although Ryan confesses he is a “ninety-day wonder” (commissioned as an officer after three months of training), he becomes the prisoners’ leader due to rank. After cautiously evaluating the situation, he cuts a deal with the Italians: the prisoners will cease all attempts to escape and, in return, all food, medicine, and clothes will be distributed to the men. Ryan’s actions don’t endear him to his new British subordinates, but he earns a measure of respect when he stands up to the Italian commandant after later being double-crossed.

The friction between Ryan and Fincham becomes a recurring element in the film. It comes to a head early when the prisoners awaken to find their Italian captors have abandoned the camp due to the impending approach of Allied forces. Still, buried deep behind enemy lines, the 400 prisoners must decide whether to stay at the camp (hoping Allies reach them before the Nazis) or try to reach safety on their own. The decisive Ryan chooses a course of action and the soldiers follow—thus setting into motion a nail-biting sequence of events that culminates in a stolen train speeding through Italy.

While Von Ryan’s Express nicely balances suspense, intense action sequences, and occasional humor, what elevates it above other World War II thrillers is the presence of a flawed hero. Ryan, for all of his good decisions, makes some awful ones, too—resulting in the deaths of some of his men. He makes the kinds of mistakes that the experienced Fincham would not. By the same token, though, Fincham lacks Ryan’s daring and innovation—traits that play a large part in the success of the prisoners’ escape.

Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard play off each other effectively. I think this is one of Sinatra’s best performances, along with The Manchurian Candidate and Suddenly. Sinatra displays the necessary bravado when Ryan makes a command decision, but he also subtly conveys the uncertainty that Ryan hides from Fincham and the others. Howard has a more straightforward role as the cynical, skeptical Fincham, but he brings conviction and believability to the part. Among the supporting cast, Edward Mulhare stands out as the chaplain, whose fluency in German leads to his impersonation of a German officer at a train station (maybe my favorite scene).

Lensed on location in Europe, Von Ryan’s Express makes excellent use of its budget, even to the point of recreating the POW camp. Versatile director Mark Robson, who helmed films ranging from Peyton Place to Phffft, paces the film perfectly and his experience as an editor (mostly for Val Lewton) is evident during the breathless climax. Jerry Goldsmith provides an outstanding music score that’s understated during the tense sequences and then rousing as it ends the film with a memorable march theme.

It’s interesting to note that Frank Sinatra insisted on changing the film’s original ending. I won’t spoil the climax, but believe that he made the right decision. It’s just one more reason to check out the marvelous Von Ryan’s Express. While it will never match the fame of The Great Escape and its iconic Steve McQueen motorcycle chase, Von Ryan’s Express deserves to rank alongside it as the best World War II action film of the 1960s.


  1. Rick, this is a remarkable film and has an unforgettable conclusion. I was really intrigued to learn that its ending was championed by Frank Sinatra. I think he was spot on in recommending it.

    Like you, I agree this was one of Sinatra's best works. I also love the scene you mentioned with Edward Mulhare. "Von Ryan's Express" has a good dose of suspense-filled moments.

    Thank you for another outstanding review, Rick!

  2. Rick, I have not heard of the film Von Ryan’s Express. Being a huge Frank Sinatra fan , I will have to check it out..

    Also.. I wanted to let everyone know that Becky is back on line.. :)

  3. Rick, I haven't seen this film, but thank you for covering a prisoner escape film other than THE GREAT ESCAPE! And I appreciate the fact that you did not give away the ending. I'm surprised that Mark Robson was not a more popular or well known director. He was as exactly as you described: "versatile." I'm a fan of his most excellent films for Val Lewton, especially THE 7th VICTIM (1943) and ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945), the latter film with the always reliable Boris Karloff. I've added this movie to my Netflix queue. Great write-up, Rick, and I'm excited to watch a film with Mark Robson at the wheel... or the, uh... place... where the engineer sits... and runs the train... you know, whatever.

  4. This is always been one of my favorite war films. It is taut story full of suspense, action, and drama. The film also features numerous recognizable supporting actors such as the actor who was 007's nemesis in Thunderball portraying the Italian prison commandant. The ending is a surprise and makes the film that much more memorable. Great review!

  5. Sark, your comments were more insightful than my review! I always thought it was interesting that the two editors who worked for Lewton--Robson and Robert Wise--both became very versatile. Wise's resume included THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and THE HAUNTING. Dawn, if you like Frank and like WWII action films, you'll love VON RYAN'S EXPRESS (and, yes, I got an e-mail for our fellow contributor, too). Toto, Edward Mulhare's chaplain is a far cry from the dashing, ghostly Captain Gregg on TV's THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR!

  6. Rick, this film was the second wide screen film I ran as a projectionst.So it's special to me. BTW look for a young James Brolin as one, of the American POW's

  7. Rick, somehow I have missed this movie, and I LOVE Frank Sinatra. Now I have to watch it! Sark, The 7th Victim is one of my top favorite films (I am a huge Val Lewton fan), and he Isle of the Dead as well. If it's the same director, along with Paul's interesting recap, I'm sure I'll like Von Ryan's Express. P.S. It's great to be back with you all!