Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Art on a Train, Nazis, and Hollywood


In early February as I reading The Monuments Men, I mentioned the plot to my dad and that the book was to be made into a movie. He said, "they've already done that." He was referring to the 1965 film The Train directed by John Frankenheimer and staring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield. I realized I needed to see this film and requested it through interlibrary loan. A couple of weeks later, as I was walking out the door to pick it up, my dad said, The Train is on TCM tonight at eight o'clock. How weird is that?

The inspiration for this film is the effort of the French Resistance to stop a train full of artwork from leaving Paris in August 1944. My extensive knowledge of this event is drawn from Chapter 21, "The Train," in The Monuments Men. Rose Valland who worked at a museum in Paris controlled by the Germans was actually a spy. She learned that the artworks from this museum would be taken by truck, then loaded onto railroad cars, then transported to Germany. She suggested to Jacques Jaujard, the director of French National Museums, that it might be a good idea if the train were delayed. He agreed and alerted his contacts in the French Resistance. The train was delayed by strikes, mechanical problems, and low-priority as trains carrying possessions of Germans leaving Paris took precedence. Ultimately, the train never left Paris, but several items were stolen before the Free French army reached the train at the end of August. Some crates of art were recovered immediately, others would remain on the train until December 1944.

The Train is an excellent film - full of suspense and drama expertly executed by an incredible cast. On the other hand, it is a Hollywood film and bears little resemblance to actual events. In an early stage-setting scene, Rose Valland goes directly to the French Resistance about stopping the train. They are reluctant to act, not really understanding the importance of the art, "the patrimony of France." This scene condenses events well and relates the importance of the train's cargo to the audience.

While the men were risking their lives to save the art, it is actually mentioned very little after the first moments of the film. It's all about the train: stopping it, moving it, painting it, hating it, and dying for it. Another component of the film is the contest of wills between the German officer Von Waldheim (Scofield) who desperately wants the art, because he understands it and Labiche (Lancaster) the reluctant member of the French Resistance who has never scene any of the paintings but gives his all to stop the train.

History films, like history books, always say as much about the time they were made or written in as the time they were about. For the life of me, I can't quite put my finger on what it would be for The Train. Perhaps it raises questions about the destruction or stealing of cultural heritage. The Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was passed as a direct result of the rampant destruction of historic buildings and city districts to construct the Eisenhower Highway system. Or maybe it really is all about World War II and putting one over on the Nazis, but I don't think so.

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