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FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT : 'Train' Package as Fascinating as the Film

November 04, 1994|BARBARA SALTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Train" was the last great action movie filmed in black and white. Shot on location in France in the freezing cold in 1964, its all-star cast was headed by the late Burt Lancaster, considered by the director, John Frankenheimer, to be one of the cinema's greatest actors. But, says Frankenheimer, the film would be impossible to make today.

"If you could make it, it would cost something like $75 million," he says on a revealing laser-disc audio commentary every bit as fascinating as the film itself (MGM/UA Home Video, $60).

The director's commentary can be heard on the analog left channel. The monaural film soundtrack is captured on the two digital tracks. The laser package includes the two-hour-and-13-minute unrated film, in a pristine digital transfer shown on three sides (one standard play), and the original theatrical trailer.

Shooting the story of French Resistance fighters preventing a train filled with France's greatest art treasures from reaching Germany during the closing days of World War II cost $5 million to $6 million 30 years ago, Frankenheimer reports. Filming took place in the bitterest cold in which the director ever worked, and proved to him that he could, indeed, do an intelligent action film.

"This was not just a mindless action picture," such as those made today, he points out. "It has some real sense. The characters are real, and you care about them."

As in virtually all his other films, Lancaster did his own stunts--and this time around, some stunts for other actors as well, to the astonishment of anyone watching, then or now.

"He was one of the best stuntmen who ever lived," Frankenheimer says in awe. Lancaster was in his early 50s when performing these arduous, dangerous stunts. "I don't think there's any other actor alive who could have done this. I don't think anybody's ever moved as well on the screen as Burt Lancaster."

Many moves during filming were, in fact, unplanned. On his only day off, Lancaster did the unthinkable--hurt his knee playing golf by stepping in a hole. To keep the movie on track, they wrote in a scene in which he was shot in the knee, to explain the limp with which he had to finish the film.

Paul Scofield plays Lancaster's formidable opponent, a German commander whose secret love for the train's art shipment becomes an obsession. Jeanne Moreau, a Resistance sympathizer, complements Lancaster's strength.

Frankenheimer says that an unforgettable scene in which a train and railroad yard were blown up took four months to set up and six seconds to shoot--with 22 cameras. The filmmakers had the cooperation of the French government, which was delighted to find a creative way to get rid of outdated equipment.

The rich black-and-white cinematography, in a beautiful transfer, looks magnificent letterboxed in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Tracking shots, wide-angle shots--"shot from low angles with wide-angle lenses to give the trains the majesty they have"--fill the screen with a mesmerizing intensity.

Maurice Jarre's haunting score, which can be heard by itself on the analog right channel, is "a tremendous attribute," Frankenheimer acknowledges.

Generous in his praise to participants, he also gives credit to the screenwriters whom the Writers Guild didn't credit following an arbitration. As far as the work of the credited writers--Franklin Coen and Frank Davis--"I never used one line, not one word" of their script, he says.

One can only wait with great anticipation for Frankenheimer to provide a commentary for one of his other classic films: "The Manchurian Candidate."

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