By Guest Reviewer EMMY WEBSTER
With the success of the film The Great Escape (1963) a new film genre was born, the "prisoner-of-war-escape" film. Marc Robson's film Von Ryan's Express (1965) follows the same formula as The Great Escape with very few changes: a group of British soldiers and officers are held as prisoners of war (the Italians here instead of the Germans); there’s a “sweatbox” instead of a “cooler,” and Frank Sinatra is saving the day instead of Steve McQueen, but aside from that it might as well be the same movie--except for any sense of real emotion, or connection with the characters. It wasn't even sad when--SPOILER ALERT--certain people died.
Express is a basic war film that is entertaining to watch; but it relied on its escape-genre cliches to draw its initial audiences in, and it failed to create the same excitement and depth that The Great Escape had.
In The Great Escape the most interesting and important aspect of the film in regards to character development is the build-up to the escape. Each of the prisoners have their own specific skills that directly impacts the success or failure of the escape, and throughout the whole film the POWs aren't just trying to escape the prison but are trying to escape their own pasts; by using their skills they have they are somehow able to redeem themselves. While the actual escape is the climax of the film, it's the build-up that makes the film.
Von Ryan's Express has none of the buildup to the escape: the film is built for action and, because of that loses what made The Great Escape interesting and exciting: character development. By making the film just about the escape and an A-list cast, the filmmakers were able to capitalize on the genre and the star-power of the main characters, played by Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard, but that's really all the movie has going for it.
Most of you know Sinatra (Ol' Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, The Sultan of Swoon)
but you've probably never heard of Trevor Howard; he starred as Judge Broomfield in Ghandi and as "the First Elder" in 1978's Superman: The Movie.
Howard, while he got second billing to Sinatra (for obvious reasons), is actually the better actor and the more interesting character.
Sinatra campaigned hard for the role of the no-nonsense war colonel Joseph Ryan who helps the POWs escape the prison camp, but every other character in the film is there to fulfill the roles that were defined in The Great Escape: there's the sick soldier role that is there to add more authenticity to the movie; the young inexperienced soldier role who is the embodiment of the fears of a soldier; the enemy soldier who is sympathetic to the prisoners and turns out not to be such a bad guy after all; etc.
The film moves quickly to the Italians surrendering and the POWs all of a sudden escaping into the countryside, but this film moves along too quickly, so quickly that it loses itself and gets swept up in the cliches of its genre, and it struggles to produce a realistic or engaging story.
Though this film is disappointing to say the least it is a wonderful example of Hollywood’s tendency to use a formula that has worked in the past, just to make money, without taking risks or actually caring about the subject. If a big celebrity is campaigning to get the lead, then Hollywood wisdom thinks this means the film will be great even if the actor can’t act very well. The filmmakers don’t care if people get up and walk out half-way through the movie because they already bought their ticket, so their objective is done.
Frank Sinatra is in one of his better roles in this film (which isn't really saying much); but the cinematography of the film is spectacular, and beautifully juxtaposes the European landscape with the conflict on the train. The film is still entertaining to watch, but it is also clearly a product of its time, and of Hollywood's bad habits. And it lacks the timelessness that makes The Great Escape great, even after fifty years.