Get on board with Frankie Blue Eyes.
Out of 20th Century Fox, Von Ryan's Express is directed by Mark Robson & stars Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard. It's adapted by Wendell Mayes & Joseph Landon from the novel by David Westheimer. William H. Daniels is on photography and Jerry Goldsmith provides the score. Contary to what some sources say, this is not filmed in Panavision, it is filmed in Fox's trusted CinemaScope in De Luxe Color. Unless the opening credits are telling lies that is!
Italy, August 1943. With the Allies poised to strike, the Germans seize control of Italy. So the war Weary Italian nation fought on as a prisoner of the German armies.
Reeling from the critical kicking and gargantuan financial whack of "Cleopatra", 20th Century Fox desperately wanted a hit to put the company back on an even keel. Treating the project with kid gloves, producer Saul David (director Robson co-produces) for his first producing gig for Fox takes one of the biggest names in showbiz and shoots on location in Italy and Spain. The film was a big hit that got a strong critical response and a box office take that made it the 10th highest grossing film of 1965. Of note also is that it turned out to be Sinatra's highest grossing - and biggest earning - film of the 1960s.
With some changes from the novel, notably the ending, Von Ryan's Express isn't setting out to be a deep and meaningful war movie. It wants to entertain, to thrill the audience, to take them out of the stuffy prison camp and onto a fast moving train. And it does this, in spades, pitting our protagonists into a boys own adventure. We accompany Sinatra, Howard and over 500 American and British prisoners-of-war across 1943 Nazi controlled Italy - and hopefully to the safety of Switzerland. Once the film leaves the "Bridge On The River Kwai" like prison camp, where the characters for the story are formed, the film turns into a rip-roaring adventure piece that's flecked with moments of genuine suspense.
Directed with vigour and a sense of fun by Robson, and aided no end by the fine cast, the film is all about being an old fashioned type war movie. It's not bogged down by the need to adhere to history or "the horrors of war" message making, this thrives on just being an action/adventure movie, one that uses real life events as its backdrop. If you like a war movie but want escapism with some beer and snacks, well this is the one for you. There are some strong character moments to keep it emotionally viable too - with the ending particularly memorable, and dare I say it, bold (altered at Sinatra's request apparently). Even the appearance of a female on board our machismo packed train (Raffaella Carrà) serves an important purpose. For where it at first seems out of place, a token offering, it ultimately makes for a critical piece of the film.
Technically the piece scores high too, with effective stunt work, smart action set pieces (the last quarter bridge confrontations are thrillingly executed), sharp detailed colour and ear busting sound work (check out the Messerschmitt attack, wow!). This be an all encompassing piece of entertainment. Easily holding up on revisits over the years, Von Ryan's Express is a safe recommendation to the action/adventure/war film fan. 8/10