Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Burt Lancaster in The Train

Somewhere in a cemetery in California, there’s a small headstone bearing the name of Burt Lancaster above the years he lived on earth: 1913-1994. But Burt Lancaster is very much alive on my TV screen where 1965’s The Train is airing on the “This” network.

There’s something eerie about film. It captures images and sounds and keeps them alive well into the future. It’s as though Burt Lancaster never got old, at least no older than he was in The Train, never suffered the stroke that left him paralyzed in 1991, and never died following a heart attack three years later. He’s climbing ladders, running across fields, jumping off trains, and blasting away with a machine gun. It’s spooky. Movies are time machines.

The actor once said it was unfortunate that he and director John Frankenheimer hadn’t started the movie together. Arthur Penn had been fired from the production, by which time the actors had already set about establishing their characters. Lancaster, the American movie star, was playing a Frenchman, but he makes no attempt to sound like one. Lancaster later regretted not attempting a French accent, and believed he would have if Frankenheimer, with whom he had already made Birdman of Alcatraz, had been directing from the start. As it is, The Train is a superb action film that gave the then 51-year-old former acrobat many opportunities to run, jump, slide down ladders, climb hills with a machine gun strapped around his shoulder, etc.

But The Train raises a provocative question: which has greater value? A man’s life, or the art that represents his noblest achievement? In The Train, the Nazis attempt to loot France of its art treasures in the waning days of World War II. Lancaster, though questioning the value of works by Picasso, Van Gogh, and other artists in relation to the lives that would be lost to retrieve them, sets out to stop the train carrying these canvases as it makes its way to Germany. The chief Nazi, played by Paul Scofield, has no doubts about the value of these paintings. To him, Lancaster is a mere brute incapable of appreciating beauty.

Whether approached for its thoughtfulness or simply as an action film, The Train is one of Lancaster’s best.

Brian W. Fairbanks
January 7, 2010

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


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