Why The Train Shouldn’t Be Forgotten, or 10 Things Action Filmmakers Need to Remember
John Frankenheimer was right in the middle of one of the best runs of his career with The Train: he had just made Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, and Seven Days in May (with a whole lotta Lancaster) and Seconds was up next. Of these films, The Train is a nearly pure action movie, second only to Ronin in his catalog. Frankenheimer was a wonderfully classical and economical director of story and action (and I suspect he learned economy from beginning his career as a television director) and as such, filmmakers can learn a lot from him. He holds, of course, to the fundamental virtue of clarity, but The Train demonstrates a lot of other principles and protips that will produce a fine slab o’ cinematic entertainment.
1. Give the action itself a moral challenge. A title card in the first seconds of The Train tell us that this is Paris on 2 August 1944–which means the Allies are right now on their way. By the end of the next moving and spooky three minutes–before we even get to the titles–we have the setup for the film: the Nazis are going to move a massive collection of France’s finest paintings to Germany via a single train. The director of the museum (Suzanne Flon) then recruits railway manager and Resistance member Labiche (Burt Lancaster) to stop the train before it gets to Germany, and to save the art. (This was based on a true story and in that story, the train never got out of Paris.)
This kind of story embeds drama and even moral argument in the action. What is the worth of art? Of a national heritage? And how much does art count as national heritage? How many people should die for either one? A debate about these things isn’t cinematically interesting (although Godard or Herzog could probably pull it off) but a slambang action movie is. (There are a few speeches about these questions, and all but the first one–by Flon–are mistakes. Flon’s speech to Labiche is necessary because it sets the situation.) The power of action is that we don’t need to hear any argument about these things, because the action makes the entire argument. Late in the film, for example, Lancaster has to set off a plastique charge and then he sees that the engine of the train has been loaded with French hostages. He derails the train instead of blowing the engine, so without saying a word, he demonstrates a principle: he will risk French lives for the art but not deliberately take them. And by the end of the film, we feel another principle at work here: it was important to stop the train not just because of the art, because another essential part of French heritage was Fuck You, Nazis, and the Resistance kept it alive.
2. The image has a front and a back as well as four sides. Use them. Frankenheimer always favored clean, geometric compositions, and that works so well for action. He exploits depth of field as much as Welles does, generating opposition from front to back as well as side-to-side. He places characters closer to the foreground than most other directors, almost Michael Mann-close, and then puts another character in opposition on a diagonal line. (That one of these characters is Burt Lancaster helps a lot.) In the best shots, he even works in some background action. His images both convey a lot of information and have strong visual conflicts in them, like Kubrick’s photographs or Seven Samurai. These images don’t need action to carry a charge.
Frankenheimer also employs a lot of tracking shots, some of them remarkably complex for the pre-Steadicam era. It’s just as effective for showing the chaos of a Nazi office for the moment when the Allies were expected any day now (a lot of people are burning papers) as for showing the clean action of Team Labiche carrying out sabotage. In both cases, the absence of cutting makes the action feel more real, because we see a continuous action with the same actors through all of it. Frankenheimer pulls a neat motif that uses both of his skills here: often he’ll have a Nazi soldier cross directly in front of the camera during the tracking shots, creating a visceral, visual feeling: they’re everywhere. When Labiche says that one of his men was captured on the first morning of the action (he has only two people left now), we don’t need an explanation because we’ve already seen what “occupied France” means.
3. Movies and the world both have sound. Maurice Jarre provides an exciting (one could even say jarring) score, but Frankenheimer deploys it sparingly, choosing instead to create an even more exciting soundtrack of ambient noise. Train whistles, steam engines, metallic clanks, brakes grinding, and the occasional bout of gunfire and ‘splosions all show up and all of it is just as vivid as the images, and for the same reasons. Frankenheimer occupies the audial space as much as he occupies the visual one, and that keeps our attention. He also, like the images, uses background noise to convey information; when we hear anti-aircraft guns going off, that means the clock on the story has moved up. We know it, and so do the characters. Like the busy tracking shots, the sounds puts us in a real world with real machinery and real people, and not a film with a sweeping score. It’s not the artful, beautiful collage of Gangs of New York, but like so much about The Train, it gets the job done, and done well.
4. Start the clock sooner than we expect. The Beat the Clock plot remains one of the simplest and most effective you can give an action movie, and The Train uses it on a micro- and macrolevel. Setting the whole thing just before the Allies get to Paris not only puts a clock on the action, it’s a clock that the characters don’t know about–and I didn’t either, ‘cuz I couldn’t remember the exact date of Liberation. (French audience will not miss this point, I’m thinking.) Frankenheimer stages a gripping sequence about stalling a train long enough for the Allies to bomb it, and keeps clocks in the frame whenever he can just to make it that much more intense. Best of all, he jumps the gun on how he starts the action–with the Nazi colonel (Paul Scofield) in charge of moving the art ordering the train out of Paris entirely as a cover-your-ass play. The first half hour of the movie feels almost stalled, with some great arguments and conflicts (between Scofield and his superiors, between Lancaster and Flon) and then suddenly, we’re off. It’s so effective, because it shows us that there’s always something unpredictable about how the events will unfold, and the rest of the movie sticks to that.
5. What will this character do? Unpredictable characters create unpredictable events, and Scofield does so much on that point. If your protagonist has a clear mission, it helps if the antagonist keeps something in reserve. Frankenheimer and his team of writers shrewdly start the film with a beautiful, dark, almost silent sequence of Scofield looking at the paintings (even in black-and-white, seeing all of them is moving), followed by a conversation with Flon where she says “you won’t convince me that you’re cynical. I know what these paintings mean to you.” The conversation and Scofield’s admiration suggest a sensitive guy, as does the way he bargains with his superiors over getting a train for the paintings; with them, he argues entirely for their cash value. At the beginning, we see a man trying to make the best of a bad situation, a large-scale looter but not a killer.
When the action starts, though, he becomes utterly ruthless and lethal, executing anyone who gets in his way. (Frankenheimer uses his depth-of-field shots for one of the executions, with it happening in the background while Lancaster pleads for mercy in the foreground.) The fakeout works so well, and makes Scofield’s opening sensitivity necessary. Without that, he’s a cartoon Nazi villain; with it, he’s more complex, but more important than that, we don’t know what he’ll do. (The Nazi policy of killing civilians was missing from Inglourious Basterds, and it was that film’s biggest flaw, lowering the stakes and the moral challenge.) When that hostage-loaded train shows up, we haven’t been given any warning but we know that right bastard Scofield did it–and we know he could do worse. (In his final act, he does.) That’s who you want to go up against Burt Lancaster and the French Resistance. It’s a fair fight and a morally risky one.
6. A plan is more interesting than a fight. Since the real theme of so many contemporary action movies is “victory achieved through the power of punching,” it’s such a pleasure to see a film where the outcome depends on teamwork, smarts, and deception. The problem with fights is that too often who wins depends entirely on the plot; we’ve all seen so many cases where the apparently weaker fighter suddenly wins because of One Clever Trick. (This has led to a lot of me getting bored waiting for the hero to do said Clever Trick.) A plan, though, gives opportunities for multiple players, multiple actions, and cutting between all of them and, as Scott Tobias sez, that shit is cinema.
The deception begins right away and not just with Scofield–Lancaster isn’t revealed as a Resistance member until he gets to his houseboat. (Another deception there, too, with Flon and the remnants of his team waiting for him there.) The entire middle section of the film consists of an elaborate shell game, one that depends on the Germans not knowing the French landscape, which they most likely wouldn’t. It allows for suspense to be built and held over a long period of time and it’s not just thrilling, not just fun, but goes again to the theme of what the Resistance (really, any resistance) was all about: the people who defended their country not because it was right but because it was their home, and not someone else’s.
7. Action heroes don’t have to be superheroes. In fact, it’s more exciting if they aren’t. What makes–what defines–a hero isn’t strength but weakness, because that’s something the hero has to overcome. Most action movies aren’t stories but pageants, in that they demonstrate the hero’s strength rather than show the hero’s journey. Frankenheimer never makes that mistake; we are seeing Burt Lancaster, former circus acrobat, but we’re also seeing an ordinary Frenchman struggling to do an extraordinary thing. In the film’s final sequence, Lancaster has to run up and then down a hill to get ahead of the the train, and then dismantle the railway track almost by hand. Frankenheimer shoots this in long takes and Lancaster’s exhaustion and desperation is something we can feel; it anticipates Popeye Doyle running himself to the breaking point in the final sequence of French Connection II. In this kind of sequence, the outcome really is in doubt, and our sympathies get fully engaged. You can’t ask for more from a movie than that.
The ordinariness of the heroes extends outward from Lancaster to the whole cast. In his article “The Faces of. . .Jean Valjean,” our own Michael G noted that French versions of Les Miserables cast older and less glam men as Jean, and The Train follows the same principle. The Resistance fighters, even Lancaster, all have the look of experience and weariness; they’ve gone past bravery into just wanting the damn war to be over. (This is why, by the way, casting Jeanne Moreau was a misstep. De-glamming her to the level of everyone else just isn’t gonna happen, and her star power required her to have both a gigantic credit and a couple of speeches that slow everything down. At least give the lady something to do.) Michel Simon (the Boudu who was Saved from Drowning), as “Papa,” the oldest of them, has no handsomeness to him but charm in abundance and plays it so wonderfully cranky. He risks his life and sacrifices himself out of what feels like pure annoyance that anyone, employee or Nazi, would challenge his lifetime’s knowledge of trains. Again, that’s something we can feel, and it’s what The Train is all about: how the extraordinary always has its roots in the ordinary.
8. Watching people do stuff is never not fun. The Train moves at a steady enough pace that we can simply watch what the characters do, and sabotage, Nazi-avoidance, and running a train provides lots of opportunities to do stuff. At one point, we just see Lancaster forge and replace a wheel rod. There’s no need for this scene–formally, it just sets up a conversation with Scofield about how-long-until-we-get-going–but the film takes pleasure in watching these distinctly industrial activities and the men at work. Also, I didn’t know that French railyards came with their own bar/café, which strikes me as about the most French thing possible.
Film, with its ability to cut between far and near perspectives, does so well with this kind of thing and Frankenheimer shoots it fluidly. (There are only a couple of overdone zooms, Frankenheimer saying THIS IS GONNA BE IMPORTANT PAY ATTENTION.) The realism of the sets reinforce the feel and the lush black-and-white cinematography is so well suited for showing this masculine, grimy, oily business; oil in fact plays into a key plot point. All this is beautiful and more, tying back to the theme of the film: there are moments when the images call up the great realist streak in French painting. I hope somewhere Van Gogh can appreciate the simple held shot of Lancaster’s hands setting a plastique charge.
9. Practical makes perfect. I remember an interview with Samuel L. Jackson describing his experience filming the CGI battle in Attack of the Clones, something like “I’m swinging this stick and yelling ‘George, how big is the thing I’m attacking?’ ‘It’s about the size of an SUV!’ ‘An SUV thanks George!’” The one thing CGI never seems to get right, and probably can’t, is body language. You can put all the money and polygons in your movie you want, but you still have the same problem as Birdemic: your actors aren’t actually interacting with anything there, and your cameras record them not interacting.
So, whenever you can, have your effects practical and your actors do what their characters do. When Lancaster runs up a hill or slides down a ladder or jumps of a train, he’s actually doing those things and all the things his body does, all the things the camera unforgivably captures, are real. Too often, CGI is there to dazzle rather than engage; it tells us that what we’re seeing isn’t real, but hey, it’s complex and expensive, so please admire it. (Michael Bay, natch, is the best example of this kind of use of CGI. David Fincher does much the opposite: shoots realistically and uses CGI to erase the things, like camera tracks, that would break the realism.) In line with The Train’s dirty, realistic aesthetic, we see real people doing real things. Even painting becomes something exciting and more than a little dangerous.
CGI also does poorly at showing the inertia of objects. This really isn’t an inherent flaw in the medium, it’s just that so many directors decide “hey, we can do whatever we want, so fuck physics” and have ‘splosions with bodies and cars and buildings flying all over the place. Here, when Frankenheimer shows us a four-stage train crash, the payoff for the entire middle act, everything moves realistically because it’s, y’know, real. When one engine hits another, they both stay on the ground and we can see that we’re looking at literally tons of metal. It’s visually compelling and also necessary to the plot, because we can see how long it will take to clean up and get things moving again. Action movies need to have difficult actions, and practical effects keep them that way.
10. Nazis Get Owned never gets old. Man, if this is wrong, I don’t wanna be in the same state as right.