Frank Sinatra’s cinematic canon isn’t a very fashionable one; even though he was offered Die Hard for contractual reasons, he never mounted much of a silver screen comeback after the 1960’s. But his best films , Suddenly, From Here to Eternity, The Manchurian Candidate, all stand up well today, and while his music has endured in a more considerable way, he was a genuine box-office draw, and his Mark Robson’s WWII action/adventure was one of the box office top ten in 1965. Many war films don’t stand the test of time, but for straight-up movie-star heroism, Von Ryan’s Express is as propulsive as the title suggests.
The 1960’s were far enough away from the grim realities of WWII for war films to offer a somewhat jocular mix of comedy and tragedy; The Great Escape deftly mixes different elements to good effect. Based on a novel, Von Ryan’s Express is a fictional story, and one constructed to rouse emotions. Von Ryan (Sinatra) is brought down to earth in Italy when his glider crashes in the opening scene; he finds himself in an interment camp, where stiff-upper Brit Trevor Howard commands a ragged bunch dedicated to escape. The war is close to ending, and when the guards abruptly vanish, Von Ryan decides to make his own break for freedom, but commandeering a train and heading for Switzerland.
If one thing sticks out about Robson’s film, it’s the surprisingly downbeat ending; Sinatra insisted on this to avoid any potential sequels. So, spoiler alert for anyone still living in 1965, Von Ryan is gunned down on the tracks in the final scene as he runs for the train, and his body is left slumped on the tracks. In view of some of the lighter moments, it’s a real bummer, but also in keeping with the tragi-comic aspect. There’s silly stuff as Sinatra commands his men to go naked rather than wear rags in the camp, but such levity is abruptly undercut when a group of his men are massacred in front of Von Ryan’s eyes.
Shot largely on location, and with more physical action and less blue-screen than might be expected, Von Ryan’s Express has some notable action highlights, as Von Ryan, well, Die Hards his way out of captivity and takes over the train while in transit, and in the spectacular finale, in which Von Ryan’s men frantically try and clear the tracks while being dive-bombed by enemy aircraft. War is hell, but it can also be a crowd-pleaser cinematically, and Von Ryan’s Express deserves to be up there with the best war films of the swinging sixties.