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Von Ryan's Express(1965)
A POW from the US leads a group mainly British prisoners to escape from the Germans in WWII.
For more about Von Ryan's Express and the Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray release, see Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on November 13, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Raffaella Carrà, Brad Dexter, Sergio Fantoni, John Leyton
Director: Mark Robson
» See full cast & crew
Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray Review
Ol' Blue Eyes commandeers a Nazi train.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, November 13, 2012
Exempted from military service during WWII—supposedly for a perforated ear drum and emotional instability—crooner/actor Frank Sinatra eventually played soldier in a handful of films about the war, including From Here to Eternity, Kings Go Forth, and Von Ryan's Express. The latter is one of his better movies; on paper it may play like a rip-off combination of 1963's The Great Escape and 1964's The Train —and it does ape elements from both—but the 1965 adventure is plenty thrilling in its own right, tensely directed by Mark Robson and loosely based on a novel by David Westheimer.
The film was an attempt by the ailing 20th Century Fox to reassert itself after the critical and financial disaster that was Cleopatra, and instead of playing it safe—shooting on a lot, say, with a moderate budget—the studio doubled down and went big, filming exteriors on location in Italy, constructing an enormous prison camp set, and engineering some impressive large-scale action set pieces. It paid off. Not only was Von Ryan's Express a box office success that year, it holds up well today as an entertaining war thriller from the golden era of WWII-themed moviemaking.
Sinatra plays Colonel Joseph L. Ryan, a P-38 fighter pilot who crash lands behind enemy lines in the German-occupied Italy of 1943. Picked up by Italian soldiers, he's whisked off to a P.O.W. camp run by the tyrannical blackshirt Major Battaglia (Adolfo Celi), who denies the mostly British prisoners Red Cross parcels, proper hygiene, and malaria medicine. Ryan's presence disrupts the power balance inside the camp; as ranking officer, he supersedes the English Major Eric Fincham—a wonderfully cantankerous Trevor Howard—who had been marshaling his men and supplies in preparation for the kind of daring escape we normally expect from these sorts of P.O.W. movies.
Ryan's approach is more reasonable, though; he knows the Allies will take Italy in a matter of weeks, so he befriends Battaglia's right-hand-man and translator, Captain Oriani (Sergio Fantoni), in an effort to make living conditions better for the imprisoned troops in the meantime. There's a brilliant scene where Ryan reveals Fincham's escape tunnels to Battaglia, earning pills and hot showers for the men—along with Fincham's ire—in the process. When Ryan pushes for new clothing as well, Battaglia balks—he's been selling the Red Cross donations on the black market—so our hero orders the prisoners to strip naked and burn their tattered uniforms, basically forcing the fascist to comply.
Ryan's clever, cool-headed approach doesn't always work for the better, however, and the film's thematic underpinning is an examination of the way war complicates moral decisions and good intentions. What's more ethically preferable, for example—to murder a single surrendered enemy officer in cold blood, or allow him to live, risking the death of your own troops if/when he rats out your location to the Germans? Ryan and Fincham have different answers to that not-so-hypothetical question, and when the former's compassion results in the Nazi machine gun slaughter of several wounded British soldiers, the latter slaps him with the titular derogatory nickname: Von Ryan.
So, where does the Express factor in? After the Italian prison guards flee the camp—knowing the Allies are inevitably en route—Ryan and Fincham lead their men through the countryside but are captured by Nazi troops and loaded onto a train bound north for Deutschland. Using stealth and brute force, the allied soldiers seize control of the train, and from here on out, the film is a white-knuckle, locomotive-based action movie. With help from Fincham, Captain Oriani, and the brave, German-speaking Chaplain Constanza (Edward Mulhare), Ryan engineers a mostly successful deception that allows the train to glide through German checkpoints, switch tracks, and chug—not unopposed—towards the freedom of the Swiss border.
Mild spoiler alert: The films barrels down the literal and figurative tracks to a noble, bittersweet conclusion. As a stipulation for taking the role, Sinatra demanded the triumphant ending of the novel be changed to something more sacrificial, partially for dramatic impact, but also in order to rule out the possibility of a sequel. He additionally required Fox to shoot in Panavision instead of the studio's usual CinemaScope, making "My Way" seem like a gross understatement. Still, his presence is responsible for much of the film's chilled-out-men-on-a-mission vibe. Ol' Blue Eyes carries the role with his usual cool, dry, get-it-done swagger here, and if he's just being himself, so what? It's just what the movie requires.
Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray, Video Quality
If you're high off a viewing of the recently remastered Patton in glorious 70mm—as I am—you might be underwhelmed by the comparatively grubby Blu-ray transfer of Von Ryan's Express. Shot predominately using the Panavision system—with a few scenes in Fox's native CinemaScope—the film's 2.35:1 image is heavily grainy, so much so that the analog film noise affects the overall clarity of the picture. (On the plus side, there's no blatant DNR or edge enhancement here.) There are some shots where fine detail borders on impressive, but much of the time textures and outlines seem fuzzy and undefined. Color fares better, with a warm, rich palette, balanced skin tones, and good contrast. (Although the day-for-night scenes—as usual—look awful, with crushed shadow detail galore.) The source print isn't in bad shape, but there are noticeable white specks and abrasions in many scenes, and there occasionally appears to be some chroma/compression noise intermixed with the natural film grain. If you've seen the film on DVD you'll notice an all-around improvement, but it's not a drastic one, and I suspect Fox probably could've done a little more to get Von Ryan's Express in tip-top shape.
Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The film's original monoaural mix has been given a half-hearted multi-channel retrofitting, reworked into a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. I use the term "surround" loosely, because you rarely ever notice the rear speakers in action. At best, the sound from the front has been bled quietly into the surround channels; at worst, you'll hear nothing at all from back/sides. This is fine—purists needn't worry about jimmy-rigged sound effects stagily panned to the left or right—but it makes me wonder why Fox would even go to the trouble of making a 5.1 mix in the first place. Regardless, in terms of actual sound quality, the film isn't bad; there are some muffled/peaky moments early on in the prison camp sequence— the prisoners' yelling sounds quite harsh at times—but for a mid-1960s war movie, the mix has a good sense of impact and clarity. The film is notable for it's score—a classic-era Jerry Goldsmith production with martial rhythms and acute instrumentation—and it sounds better than ever here. The dialogue is always clean and easy to understand too. The disc includes a number of dub and subtitle options; see above for details.
Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
If you own the film's previous DVD release, you'll be familiar with the extras offered here:
Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The 1960s and early '70s were crowded with excellent WWII-themed movies—The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Day, Tora! Tora! Tora!—and while Von Ryan's Express doesn't quite make it into this top tier, it's not far below. Tense and well-scripted, the film benefits from the incomparable coolness of Frank Sinatra, who isn't acting so much as he's simply being. Sourced from a heavily speckled and unusually grainy print, the Blu-ray doesn't have the visual wow-factor of last week's gorgeous Patton remaster, but the film at least looks better here than it did on DVD. Recommended for any and all fans of popcorn-variety World War II movies.
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Von Ryan's Express Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Patton and Von Ryan's Express Dated - September 12, 2012
20th Century Fox Entertainment has detailed its upcoming Blu-ray releases of Mark Robson's Von Ryan's Express (1965), starring Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard and Raffaella Carrà, and Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton (1970), starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden and ...
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