Von Ryan's Express
Von Ryan's Express is a 1965 World War II adventure film directed by Mark Robson and starring Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard. The screenplay concerns a group of Allied prisoners of war who conduct a daring escape by hijacking a freight train and fleeing through German-occupied Italy to Switzerland. Based on the 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.
|Von Ryan's Express|
Theatrical release poster by Tom Chantrell
|Directed by||Mark Robson|
|Produced by||Saul David|
|Screenplay by||Wendell Mayes|
|Based on||Von Ryan's Express|
by David Westheimer
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Cinematography||William H. Daniels|
|Edited by||Dorothy Spencer|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|June 23, 1965|
Colonel Joseph Ryan, a USAAF P-38 pilot, is shot down over Italy and taken to a POW camp run by Major Basilio Battaglia. Ryan insists that Battaglia salute him as a superior officer, which is reluctantly translated by the sympathetic second-in-command, Captain Vittorio Oriani. Most of the prisoners are British, from the 9th Fusiliers. Their previous commanding officer, Brian Lockhart, has recently died due to being placed in the "sweat box" as punishment for hitting Battaglia. When Ryan arrives in camp, Major Eric Fincham is the senior British officer. Ryan, being senior, assumes command.
Since Italy is close to surrender, Ryan is in no mood to support Fincham's escape attempts. Fincham catches American prisoners with medicines secretly being hoarded for escape attempts, but Ryan orders Fincham to distribute the medicines to prisoners who are seriously ill.
He then infuriates Fincham by betraying an escape plan to Battaglia in return for better treatment for the prisoners. When Battaglia still refuses to issue new clothes, Ryan forces his hand by ordering the prisoners to strip and burn their filthy uniforms. Battaglia throws Ryan into the sweat box as punishment.
Italy surrenders; the guards flee; the British promptly put Battaglia on trial as a war criminal. He portrays himself as a broken man who has repudiated fascism. Ryan orders him to not be executed, but instead, to be put in the sweat box.
A German fighter plane overflies the camp, forcing Ryan and the men to head out across the Italian countryside to freedom, with Oriani's help. That night they rest in some ruins while he moves forward in an attempt to contact Allied forces. In the morning, the Germans recapture the prisoners. Fincham assumes Oriani has betrayed them. When the POWs are put on a train, they find a severely battered Oriani in the prisoner carriage, and Battaglia with the Germans. The Germans then shoot all the sick prisoners. Fincham, who blames Ryan for letting Battaglia live, needles him by calling him "von Ryan". The train travels to Rome, where a German officer, Major von Klemment, takes command.
Ryan finds a way to pry up the floorboards of the car. That night, when the train stops, Ryan, Fincham, and Lieutenant Orde sneak out underneath it and kill several guards, then free a carload of POWs, who help them kill the remaining guards. 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, is tasked with impersonating the German commander to ensure their passage through the next station in Florence.
Through the documents received in Florence, they learn that both trains are headed towards Innsbruck, Austria. Through trickery, 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 manage to escape at a stop, killing Orde. Both are then shot by Ryan. Later, the train is passing a German facility when it is bombed by Allied aircraft. Several cars catch fire, and several men are wounded.
Meanwhile, Waffen-SS troops, led by Colonel Gortz, have discovered the ruse. They are slowed when Oriani and the train's Italian engineer disable a signal box at Milan, knocking out the track diagrams. The prisoners reroute the train to neutral Switzerland through manual switching.
Gortz and his troops pursue them. As the Alps appear, the prisoner train is attacked by German aircraft. Rocket fire causes boulders to fall and destroy a section of track. The POWs replace the damaged rail 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 of them make it, but Ryan is gunned down by Gortz just before he can board, as the train crosses into Switzerland.
- Frank Sinatra as Col. Joseph L. Ryan
- Trevor Howard as Maj. Eric Fincham
- Raffaella Carrà as Gabriella
- Brad Dexter as Sgt. Bostick
- Sergio Fantoni as Capt. Oriani
- John Leyton as Lt. Orde
- Edward Mulhare as Capt. Costanzo
- Wolfgang Preiss as Maj. von Klemment
- James Brolin as Private Ames
- John van Dreelen as Col. Gortz
- Adolfo Celi as Maj. Bassilio Battaglia
- Vito Scotti as Peppino the Italian engineer
- Richard Bakalyan as Cpl. Giannini
- Michael Goodliffe as Capt. Stein
- Michael St. Clair as Sgt. Dunbar
- Ivan Triesault as Obergruppenfuhrer Wilhelm von Kleist
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. The New York Times book reviewer said the novel "has everything for the screen but the camera directions."
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.
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.
Von Ryan's Express achieved verisimilitude using aircraft, trains and wheeled vehicles photographed on location along with the occasional model. The fighters 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 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. 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.
Critics liked Von Ryan's Express. Variety noted, "Mark Robson has made realistic use of the actual Italian setting of the David Westheimer novel in garmenting his action in hard-hitting direction and sharply drawn performances." Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy noted in her biography of her father that his performance fuelled speculation of another Academy Award nomination. Time Out London called the film a "ripping adventure" that was "directed with amused panache by Robson, and helped no end by a fine cast...", while the BBC's TV, film and radio listings magazine The Radio Times described it as "a rattlingly exciting Second World War escape adventure, with a well-cast Frank Sinatra..."
The film grossed $17,111,111 ($138,822,245 in 2019 consumer dollars) at the North American box office, equating to $7,700,000 ($62,470,011 in 2019 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 $13,975,000, meaning it made a profit.
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 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
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- 100 Greatest War Films of all time