VON RYAN'S EXPRESS (1965) ***
In Italy, captured American Ryan (Sinatra), a temporary colonel, is put in an Italian POW camp for Britishers. After much stress, especially between Ryan and the top Brit, career officer Trevor Howard (who is outranked by the Yank), Ryan leads a mass escape that fails. The escapees are recaptured.
Then the Allies, in German uniforms (hence the "Von" in the film's title) take over a "Kriegsgefangenzug," which is one those wonderful German compound terms (a. k. a "railroad words"). It means "a train of prisoners of war. "
Chased by another train full of armed Germans, they try to reach Switzerland. The picture stretches belief and does become increasingly silly, but at the same time there is much suspense. It is good cliffhanger stuff, keeps mounting (along with the silliness) but also keeps grabbing you.
The tone, compared to that of many other movie in the same genre (or similar sub-genres) is more serious than jokey. Many a good man dies.
The film has only two big names of thespians, Sinatra and Howard, but amont the others are some really fine character actors like the Italian Adolfo Celi (who was a great the arch-villain, that same year, in the James Bond "Thunderball") or the German Wolfgang Preiss. The actors deliver most capable performances, in movie-movie style, of course.
Ryan-Sinatra is one of those fellows whom perhaps one might not trust too much in civilian life, but whose wiles and talents come in handy in the situations of this film.
"Von Ryan's Express" is not free from familiar elements, such as what you might call "the esthetic relief," here in the shape of a very pretty girl, the mistress of the German General. Yet she is also something of an anti-cliche. Instead of the deja vu character of a woman who pretends to go along with the Germans but helps the Allies, this lady betrays and is shot by Sinatra, while the watching Italians think that the Nazis killed her.
Interestingly, the movie was Academy Award nominated for its sound effects by Walter Rossi, the same man who some years before had won an Oscar in the same category for the first released movie scripted by Wendell Hayes,"The Enemy Below," an excellent W. W. II submarine picture.
Scenarist Wendell Mayes is less known than Mark Robson, the film's director, perhaps because over a 25-year period, he received credits "only" in 15 pictures.
My top choices among them would include "The Enemy Below," his next film "The Spirit of St. Louis" and two that he wrote for director Otto Preminger: "Anatomy of a Murder" (which had seven Oscar nominations, including one for Mayes's writing) and "Advise and Consent. " (There was one another collaboration with Preminger too, the most watchable "In Harm's Way")
Also on this list I place the Ted Post-directed "Go Tell The Spartans," (1978) one of the best Vietnam War movies. A thorough re-evaluation of Wendell Mayes may well add more titles. (Edwin Jahiel)