Monday, 6 February 2017

Von Ryan's Express (1965)

Colonel Ryan is a US pilot who gets shot down over Italy in 1943.  He's transferred to an Italian prisoner of war camp where the British regular army inmates have a virulent dedication to escape efforts.  Their continued attempts have prompted the camp commandant to turn off the water to their showers, deny them fresh clothing, and put them on half rations.  This has just caused the PoWs to escalate, to the point where they are stockpiling anti-malarial medicine for escapees, despite the fact that they have fifty men in the camp hospital suffering from just that disease.

Ryan, who believes Italy will surrender within the next few weeks, is the highest ranked officer among the prisoners, and thus technically their commander.  He bans escape attempts and engages in a more conciliatory approach to the commandant, which earns him the unfriendly sobriquet "Von Ryan" from the other prisoners, but does also improve their quality of life.  And hey, they'll all be out of there in a few weeks anyway, right?

Well, not so much.  Ryan is right that the Italians are about to surrender, but has not allowed for the speed with which the Nazis will seize control of the country.  He's a refreshingly error-prone protagonist all around, actually: normally we can expect the sympathetic point of view character to be right pretty much every time he clashes with someone else over a decision, but Ryan doesn't get such gentle treatment here.  Like a real commander, he has to live with making choices that got men killed when another option might have kept them alive.

And like a real commander, he has to keep making those choices, as he and his men are bundled onto a train destined for Germany.  Ryan's going to have to act fast, if he doesn't want to spend the next few years as a guest of the Third Reich ...

This is a solid war adventure tale, sprinkled with a light mixture of funny or emotional moments to vary up the pace.  Some of the action looks a little old-fashioned and tame by modern day standards, but the film otherwise looks great: the production used real vehicles as much as possible, rather than models, and built an entire life-size prison camp rather than working on a studio lot, and those efforts come across on screen.

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