War Movie Mondays: ‘Von Ryan’s Express’

This week’s pick bring us back to my favorite of all the wars, World War II. The chairman of the board, Frank Sinatra leads an all star cast in Von Ryan’s Express (1965) which tells the story of a massive allied prisoner escape by train from Italy to the Swiss frontier. Col. Joseph Ryan (Sinatra) is a downed American flyer who is taken prisoner by the Italians in August, 1943 as the Italians face allied invasion and increased German occupational troops.

Ryan is taken to a P.O.W. (prisoner of war) camp where he is introduced to the camp’s commandant Major Battaglia (Adolfo Celi of Thunderball fame) who is a die hard “two bit Mussolini.” The camp is made up primarily of British prisoners led by Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard) who has taken over command of the prisoners after his Colonel dies from punishment due to their Italian captors. Ryan assumes command as the senior officer of the camp and believes that escape attempts be halted until they are liberated by the rapidly advancing allies who have moved through Sicily, and onto the Italian mainland.

Ryan is quickly dubbed “Von Ryan” by his fellow prisoners who despise his “knuckle under” attitude. Ryan tries to convince Battaglia and his sympathetic adjutant Captain Oriani (Sergio Fantoni) that there will be no further escape attempts and that he will control the actions of the prisoners in return, Ryan demands that Battaglia re-issue Red Cross parcels to the prisoners who are suffering from malnutrition and disease.

Ryan exposes a cache of medical supplies that Fincham’s men have stashed for escape attempts. Battaglia doesn’t keep his word, and Ryan forces the men to strip their tattered uniforms and burn them in protest. Battaglia has Ryan placed under arrest and throws him into the “sweat box” which was how Major Fincham’s Colonel died.

After a few days of solitary confinement, Ryan is freed by Sgt. Bostick (Brad Dexter) who is one of only eight American prisoners in the camp. Bostick informs Ryan that the guards fled during the night after learning Italy surrendered after American forces landed at Salerno in Southern Italy. Captain Costanzo, (Edward Mulhare) a British Chaplain, tells Ryan that Maj. Fincham has captured Battaglia and Oriani and plans to have them brought up on war crimes charges with a field court martial. Fincham demands justice for the death of his Colonel and the treatment of his troops.

Ryan exacts revenge by having Battaglia placed in the sweat box to die. Oriani helps Ryan and Fincham coordinate an escape which is quickly ended due to the Germans learning from Battaglia that they have fled into the countryside. Ryan and the others are once again taken prisoner, this time by the Germans under the command of Maj. Von Klement (Wolfgang Preiss) who plans to transfer them by prison train to a camp in Austria.

Ryan and the senior officers who are placed in the first train car, escape at night through broken floor boards and quickly gain control of the prison train. They take Von Klement hostage and plot an escape (proposed by Oriani and the train engineer) that will take the train to neutral Switzerland. Captain Costanzo assumes the role of Von Klement only because his character can speak German fluently, and can pass himself off as a German officer when he receives orders at various train depots under German supervision.

As the men get closer to their objective, the German high command learns that the train has deviated from its initial course after Ryan’s men destroy a switching station on the outskirts of Milano. The Germans then send a troop train after them. The rest of the movie is a “cat & mouse” scenario in which Ryan hopes to make it to Switzerland before they are caught once more.

As the train speeds towards the border, they are intercepted by German fighters who take out the railroad tracks ahead. With the troop train in fast pursuit, Ryan leads his men into a standoff where they try to stop the Germans. Oriani leads a team of men to remove a piece of track from behind the the train to fix the broken track ahead. Ryan’s men fall back as the Germans force them out of their defensive positions. The train then proceeds on as they finally achieve their objective and escape to Switzerland.

Von Ryan’s Express was a huge undertaking for 20th Century Fox which was still recovering from the disaster which was Cleopatra. It was a relatively inexpensive film that was a rousing success for Fox which proved it could still make epic blockbusters at a time when other studios were trying to film on the back lot and not on location in Europe. Director Mark Robson and Sinatra clashed on a routine basis during the filming, but it wasn’t enough to scrap the picture.

Sinatra insisted on a few re-writes in the script, and suggested that the film be shot in Panavision rather than in Fox’s patented CinemaScope technology. The film went on to be nominated for two 1966 Academy Awards in Best Special Effects and Sound Editing.

Von Ryan’s Express is available on Special Edition DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Video and Netflix.

  • Dale Mather
    May 26, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Always one of my favorites and one of Sinatra’s best roles. I first saw this at a drive-in, in Pacoima, California in 1966. I had just finished my flight training with the USAF, and was about to be deployed to Vietnam. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. It was one of those great date movies in a classic car.

    Major Dale Mather USAF (Ret.)

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