Von Ryan's Express is a 1965 World War II war adventure film about a group of Allied prisoners who after Italy's armistice with the Allies in September 1943, conduct a daring mass escape by hijacking a freight train and fleeing through German-occupied Italy to Switzerland. It stars Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard, and is based on a novel by David Westheimer, and directed by Mark Robson. The film changes several aspects of the novel, including its ending, which is considerably more upbeat in the book. It became one of Frank Sinatra's most successful films.
Colonel Joseph L. Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is a US pilot whose P-38 Lightning is shot down. He is captured by Italian troops and taken to an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Italy, run by the cruel Blackshirt Major Battaglia (Adolfo Celi). The camp is populated mainly by British prisoners (9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, 167 Infantry Brigade, 56th (London) Infantry Division).
The previous British commanding officer, Col. Brian Lockhart, had recently died as a result of harsh camp discipline, specifically in being put in the metal "sweat box." When Ryan arrives in camp, Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard) is the ranking British officer. The American colonel being senior to Fincham, Ryan assumes command of the prisoners.
Ryan pays respect to his predecessor by refusing to sit in the late commanding officer's chair. When a US prisoner (there are only eight) is about to be punished for stealing rations, Ryan discovers he was stealing medicine, which Fincham had ordered be stashed for a future escape attempt. Ryan orders that the drugs be dispensed as necessary.
He then shows the Italian guards the prisoners' escape tunnels under construction, which infuriates the British prisoners. When Battaglia doesn't keep his word to improve conditions as much as agreed, Ryan orders the prisoners to strip and burn their filthy clothes in an effort to force Battaglia into issuing new ones. Battaglia does so, but throws Ryan into the sweat box as a punishment.
After hearing of the Italian capitulation to the Allies, the guards flee, leaving the camp unguarded. The British promptly put Battaglia on trial as a war criminal, and allow his second-in-command and Anglo-Italian translator, Captain Oriani (Sergio Fantoni), to defend him. Battaglia portrays himself as a broken man who has repudiated fascism. Ryan orders him not to be executed, but to be put in the sweat box.
The men depart on a long trek across the Italian countryside, before hiding in ancient Roman ruins for the night, as Oriani attempts to contact Allied forces. When morning comes, Germans swarm out of the forest and recapture the prisoners, killing several. Fincham is furious as he thought that Oriani had betrayed them. However, when the POWs are put on the train, they find a severely battered Oriani in the prisoner carriage. Battaglia is outside, gloating, and they realise they were betrayed to the Germans by the former camp commandant.
The Nazis shoot all sick prisoners, causing the irate Fincham to shout, "You'll get your Iron Cross now, von Ryan!". The train travels to Rome, where the men are allowed to eat and a German officer, Major von Klemment (Wolfgang Preiss), takes command of the train.
Ryan discovers that the floorboards of the boxcar the officers are locked in to be loose, and manages to pry a hole in the floor. That night, when the train stops to refuel, Ryan, Fincham, and Fincham's Lieutenant, Orde, sneak out from underneath the train and manage to kill several of the guards, taking their guns and helmets to blend in in the dark. They free a carload of the POW's, who take out the remaining guards, but accidentally kill the engine's Fireman in the process. Ryan and Fincham capture Major von Klemment and his Italian mistress, Gabriella (Raffaella Carrà). Before the men can escape, another train appears coming up behind them. They pull out of the station with seconds to spare. Oriani persuades the Italian locomotive engineer to help, and one of the POW's fills in as Fireman. Von Klemment reveals to the men that the train behind them is a German troop train on the same schedule as them, so the train cannot stop to let the men escape. They also find out that von Klemment is to receive orders in each station the POW's stop in for food. A German-speaking Allied chaplain, Captain Costanzo (Edward Mulhare), is enlisted to impersonate the German commander to ensure their passage through the next station in Florence. Costanzo does the acting job bravely and with style by berating the sloppiness of the German clerk on duty, but when they return to the train, he faints.
Looking at the maps and papers Major von Klemment was to receive, they realise that the troop train and the prisoner train are headed towards Innsbruck in Nazi Germany. Through trickery and the forged signature of a member of the German General Staff, Ryan and the prisoners manage to switch their train at Bologna onto a different line while the troop train continues its usual route to Innsbruck. However, before the train can leave, a Gestapo agent boards the train, seemingly for an inspection. It turns out that, after a brief moment of tension, where Fincham prepares to kill him, the agent is a black market hustler. He merely wants Ryan's US Air Corps wristwatch and trades American cigarettes and rare nylon stockings for it. Afterwards, the agent departs without further suspicion.
Major von Klemment and Gabriella are kept tightly bound and gagged. Fearing they will be murdered once the prisoners leave the train, Gabriella conceals a piece of a broken glass to cut their bonds. As the men further discuss their plans, Gabriella attempts to seduce Ryan, seductively putting on the nylon stockings Ryan had kept. Ryan asks her why she would stay with a German. Gabriella attempts to get him to feel pity for her, mentioning the hard life she had had before the war. At a water stop, where the men are being harassed by Italian civilians, Major von Klemment escapes and shoots Orde, but he is shot by Ryan. Ryan, in a German uniform, must reluctantly kill Gabriella as she escapes to prevent her from betraying his men. Ryan makes involuntary eye contact with a nearby Italian youth who had previously been hurling insults at what he thought were Germans. Now the youth silently stares with contempt at Ryan.
By this time, Waffen-SS troops led by the determined Colonel Gortz (John Van Dreelen) have wind of the ruse. The prisoners attempt to escape in what they believe is an abandoned siding storp, but discover that the track leads to a secret German facility, which is being bombed by an Allied air attack. The train races through the holocaust, bombs exploding left and right. Several of the cars catch fire, and a number of men are severely wounded including Finchy who is an experienced train driver and calls the Germans' "Old Son".
The engineer and Oriani have an idea, as the next stop is Milan. If they could disable the signals at one key tower in the Central Station, they could also disable the controls and track displays at the station, confusing the Germans. At the same time, they could re-route the train up to neutral Switzerland through manual switching without being noticed.
Gortz is waiting for them at Milano Centrale. Ryan and his men successfully disable one electric interlocking tower and switch the train off on the key line to Switzerland. Realizing the feint, the SS commandeer a freight train to pursue. As the Alps appear ahead of them, the train is attacked by three German fighter aircraft. One plane is shot down, but another destroys a section of track at a key bridge.
The POWs replace the damaged track in front of them as the SS race up from behind. Ryan, Fincham, Sgt. Bostick (Brad Dexter) and the others try to hold off the German soldiers; many of them including Bostick are killed in the process. The track is repaired and the train begins to move as the remaining POW's race up from behind it. Fincham makes it onto the train and desperately reaches back for Ryan, urging him to run faster as the Germans race through the tunnel in pursuit. Ryan is shot in the back and killed by Gortz just short of the train, which then crosses into neutral Switzerland. With Ryan's sacrifice, the prisoners have made their successful getaway. The film ends with a voice-over by Fincham, repeating his early comment to Ryan, "If only one gets out, it's a victory."
Frank Sinatra as Colonel Joseph L. Ryan,
Trevor Howard as Major Eric Fincham,
Raffaella Carrà as Gabriella,
Brad Dexter as Sergeant Bostick,
Sergio Fantoni as Captain Oriani,
John Leyton as Lieutenant Orde,
Edward Mulhare as Captain Costanzo,
Wolfgang Preiss as Major Von Klemment,
James Brolin as Private Ames,
John van Dreelen as Standartenfuhrer Gortz,
Adolfo Celi as Major Battaglia,
Vito Scotti as Italian Locomotive Engineer,
Richard Bakalyan as Corporal Giannini,
Michael Goodliffe as Captain Stein,
Michael St. Clair as Sergeant Major Dunbar,
Ivan Triesault as Lieutenant General Von Kleist,
Douglas Finch as Finchy (uncredited),
Von Ryan's Express was a project keenly undertaken by 20th Century Fox, which was still financially reeling after the extravagance and critical bashing of Cleopatra. Fox, in a bid to prove that they were still able to make films on an epic scale, shot extensively on location in Europe and built a full-scale prison camp as opposed to shooting on a backlot. It was producer Saul David's first film for Fox. He followed it with Our Man Flint, Fantastic Voyage and In Like Flint.
Rumours of a personality clash between star Frank Sinatra, who was flown by helicopter to the set, and director Mark Robson were not enough to cause problems as the film was shot with relatively little trouble. However, Sinatra did insist that the ending of the film be altered: ending any chance of a sequel. Sinatra also insisted the film be shot in Panavision rather than Fox's CinemaScope.
The film score was written by Jerry Goldsmith.
Von Ryan's Express achieved verisimilitude using aeroplanes, trains and wheeled vehicles photographed on location and the occasional models. The fighters alluded to as Messerschmitts were Messerschmitt Bf 108s. A majority of the film was shot on location around Northern Italy in Cortina d'Ampezzo and Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence. But the railway sequence at the film's conclusion was filmed in the limestone gorge of El Chorro near Málaga in Andalucía, Spain. Interiors were completed at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, California.
The locomotives used during the film were Italian 740 type steam engines.
Critics liked Von Ryan's Express. Variety noting that, "Mark Robson has made realistic use of the actual Italian setting of the David Westheimer novel in garmenting his action in hard-hitting direction and sharply-drawn performances." Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy noted in her biography of her father that his performance fuelled speculation of another Academy Award nomination. Time Out London called the film a "ripping adventure" that was "directed with amused panache by Robson, and helped no end by a fine cast...", while the BBC's TV, film and radio listings magazine The Radio Times described it as "a rattlingly exciting Second World War escape adventure, with a well-cast Frank Sinatra..."
The film grossed $17,111,111 ($128,053,267 in 2013 consumer dollars) at the North American box-office, equating to $7,700,000 ($57,623,970 in 2013 consumer dollars) taken in box office rentals. Variety ranked Von Ryan's Express as the 10th highest grossing film of 1965. Additionally, this would be Sinatra's highest grossing and biggest earning film of the decade.
The film was nominated for a "Best Sound Editing" (Walter Rossi) Academy Award in 1966, while the Motion Picture Sound Editors also nominated the film for "Best Sound Editing" in a Feature Film.
British Channel 4 ranked Von Ryan's Express number 89 on their list of 100 Greatest War Films, commenting, "A ripping yarn culminating in a wild train dash through Italy, with director Mark Robson cranking up the tension and releasing it with some excellent action set-pieces." It has a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.