Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is a US Army Air Force pilot. When his plane gets shot down in Italy in 1943, he’s taken to a prison camp that is populated by mostly British soldiers and run by a harsh man known as Battaglia (Adolfo Celi). Ryan is made senior officer of the prisoners, leading to many face-offs with Royal Army Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard), as well as leading him to gain the derogatory nickname of “Von Ryan” after a couple of bad leadership decisions.
Under Fincham’s supervision, the men have been denied food, running water, soap and clean clothes, among other supplies. Col. Ryan is determined to change this and succeeds in getting new clothes for the men, but ends up sent to a sweatbox to die for the embarrassment he has caused by resisting Battaglia’s rule.
Luckily for Col. Ryan, change is on the way. Italy surrenders a few days after Ryan is put in the sweatbox, and the Royal Army forces stage an escape from the POW camp, throwing Battaglia in the sweatbox. But their luck doesn’t last long — they soon get captured by German forces and herded onto a train, which Col. Ryan and a few other rebellious leaders hatch a plan to hijack in order to save their men, changing its course to head for a neutral country where they will be safe.
Mark Robson directs this exhilarating World War II adventure known as Von Ryan’s Express, which is based on David Westheimer’s novel of the same name.
To refer to this film as “exhilarating” is, I admit, the mildest bit misleading. It’s definitely a slow-starter, taking its sweet time for the action to build up. But when it does begin to build, it takes the viewer on an insane and exciting ride full of anxiety and suspense, successfully keeping both eyes and mind glued to the screen – which is what makes the film worthy of that title. The animosity between the characters of Ryan and Fincham also provides the film with an interesting dynamic of two people working toward the same goal while harboring disdain for each other.
The result is a film that’s surprisingly gripping. I’m not usually a huge fan of the action/adventure genre, but this one has the added bonus of wartime intrigue that kept me hooked through its nearly two-hour duration. The plot is solid, with the viewer left constantly wondering when the escaped train will be caught or what problem will arise next for the men. The audience is never sure what to expect, even up until the very end – an ending which, thanks to a plot change mandated by Frank Sinatra (which I won’t spoil), is quite a shocker.
That’s not to say that the film is a perfect war drama. There are many completely unrealistic moments. But this is a romanticized Hollywood version of the war, not a documentary, so the viewer shouldn’t expect stark realism, and therefore should not be disappointed by the film’s more outlandish scenes.
The film does anchor onto a bit of realism, so not all is completely lost for those looking for a somewhat accurate version of war and the complications that go along with it. For instance, the script makes a bold move in that not all of the main characters are still alive by the end of the film. This emphasizes the aspect of war that is full of loss, full of horrible deaths.
There isn’t a terribly large amount of character growth here, which is fairly typical of action-based films. The gunfire and explosions are what’s meant to keep the viewer hooked, and luckily this film has enough of a plot to back the action up as well. Despite the meager amount of character development, the film also succeeds in getting its audience to side with Ryan and his not-so-merry band of war brothers. Ryan himself makes many mistakes and is nowhere near free of flaws, but the viewer still roots for him and his men – possibly because the American audiences certainly still see the Allies as the “good guys” of the war, but probably also because of the effectiveness of the performances.
I consider it an indisputable fact that Sinatra was a very talented fellow, but having been a fan of his voice before his films, I always go into his films expecting to think of him as “Frank Sinatra acting” rather than seeing him as his character. I’m often proved wrong (such as with Suddenly, On the Town and From Here to Eternity), and that is the case yet again with his stand-out performance in Von Ryan’s Express. It’s very, very easy to buy him as Colonel Ryan and he gives as strong a performance as ever here.
Von Ryan’s Express is a slow-starting but overall very exciting World War II action flick. The score: 4/5