This classic film entitled “Von Ryan’s Express” is a World War II production adapted from the novel of the same name written by David Westheimer and published in 1963. Westheimer himself had been a prisoner of war, and was able to fashion his tale realistically. Having lived through World War II, I have always enjoyed films on this topic, and “Von Ryan’s Express” provides a different angle from the usual stories that came out of that era.
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Frank Sinatra - Wikimedia
An added benefit is that Frank Sinatra, the idol of teenagers when I was growing up, has the starring role of Colonel Joseph Ryan, an Army Air Corps pilot who had been taken prisoner by Italian soldiers when his plane was shot down in Italy. The prisoner of war camp to which he was taken had a population of about 400, mainly British soldiers except for eight Americans. The camp was administered by a cruel officer, Major Battaglia, who used harsh discipline and the withholding of proper food and care to keep the men in line.
Colonel Ryan Takes Command
The previous senior British officer died because of Battaglia’s treatment and had been replaced by the senior officer next in line, British Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard). Since Colonel Ryan outranked the British officer, he took command of the British and American prisoners, much to the rancor of Major Fincham.
When the German commander, Major Battaglia, did nothing to improve the prison’s conditions, as Ryan had requested, Colonel Ryan ordered the men to strip down naked and throw their clothes in a fire, virtually forcing Battaglia to outfit them in new clothes.
The Italian Surrender was Imminent
Colonel Ryan was able to report to the prisoners that the Allies had retaken Messina and it was expected that Italians would likely surrender within a matter of weeks. When that occurred, the Italian guards fled the prison, and the prisoners insisted that Battaglia should be tried then and there as a war criminal. Ryan insisted that they let him go, which earned for him the name “Von Ryan,” stating that he was in the wrong army.
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Trevor Howard - Wikimedia
The Prisoners Escape
All of the prisoners, including the sick, some on stretchers, started on a long trek but were able to stay overnight to rest in an old Roman ruin. In the morning, they were discovered by German troops who killed several of the prisoners before putting them all on a train. When the prisoners spotted Battaglia standing outside the train, they realized he had betrayed them to the Germans. Major Fincham was furious at Ryan for making such a tactical error by letting Battaglia go. The sick were held back from boarding the train and were all shot by the Germans who did not want the responsibility of caring for them. Ryan was back in the position of not having the trust of the men he commanded.
The Prisoners Take Over the Train
Ryan came up with the idea of pulling up the floorboards in the boxcar so they could let themselves out underneath the train the next time they stopped to refuel. They were able to overpower several of the guards sitting on top of the boxcars, killing them and taking their guns and uniforms. Ryan and Fincham were working closely together by this time, and were able to subdue Major Von Klemment (Wolfgang Preiss) who had taken charge of the train when it left Rome. The Major’s mistress, Gabriella, was also on the train in his plush suite.
Impersonation of a German Officer
Von Klemment informed them that another troop train would be following them and was on the same schedule, which would be a hindrance to their escape plan. Von Klemment also said that he would receive his orders at each station where a stop was scheduled. Undeterred, the men were able to convince the prison chaplain, Captain Costanzo (Edward Mulhare), who had studied in Germany and was fluent in the language, to impersonate Von Klemment, when they stopped in Florence. The Captain had to learn the mannerisms of the German officer, who tended to preen and stomp. The mild chaplain took his role seriously.
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A Frightening Development
A tension-filled episode followed because two Gestapo agents witnessed the impersonation at the station in Florence and came on board to check further. Although all the German conversation had previously been handled by the chaplain, one of the Gestapo agents approached Ryan, in his German officer’s uniform, and told him he wanted his watch. The chaplain had to mime towards Ryan, who understood, and handed over the watch. The Gestapo gave him cigarettes in return. It was a tense moment.
Thankfully, the impersonation had worked. The orders in Florence, however, stated that both trains would be headed to Innsbruck in Nazi-occupied Austria, while prisoners hoped to head towards Switzerland. In Von Klemment’s suite, they were able to forge some documents on his typewriter, stating that the train would take a different course when it reached Bologna.
The Hostages Escape
Von Klemment and his mistress were securely bound, but Gabriella had secreted a glass shard which she used to free themselves so that they were able to escape when the train stopped to take on water. Ryan was able to follow them and shot both of them. He regretted deeply that he had to kill Gabriella.
As the train made its way towards Switzerland, they were attacked by German aircraft, and a section of the train tracks was damaged. As the men were attempting to remedy the situation, a horde of SS troops came down on them just as the train was pulling away again. They all ran to get back on the train, rather than to be shot. Only Colonel Ryan did not make it.
The Film’s Ending is Changed
The author, David Westheimer, had a different ending for his novel. Frank Sinatra persuaded the director that Ryan should die, to lend a certain reality to the situation, and because of his guilt over having to kill Gabriella. I believe Sinatra’s view of a proper conclusion was a correct one.
As a long-time fan of Frank Sinatra, I have admired his ability to take on acting roles in addition to his primary talent of singing. He was a perfect fit for the part of Colonel Ryan, making errors in judgment while maintaining that swagger that tells his adversaries that he is still in charge.