Updated: Nov 11
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Burt Lancaster stars as French resistance leader Paul Labiche and British actor Paul Scofield as Col. Franz von Waldheim, in John Frankenheimer’s powerful World War II action/drama.
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4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray; 1964; unrated
Best extra: Director John Frankenheimer’s commentary
FINALLY, after 15 months, the wait is over.
In June 2022, Kino Lorber announced that “The Train,” John Frankenheimer’s powerful black and white World War II action/drama,” would get a 4K release from a scan of the original camera negative – with HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading to boot. Well, the two-disc set has arrived and the restoration looks stupendous. “The Train” has been an all-time WWII favorite (I’ve owned the laserdisc, DVD, and two different Blu-rays) – right up there with Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “Schindler’s List” (1993) and Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” (1998).
It opens on the 1,511th day of the German occupation of France, as the Allies are knocking on the doorstep of Paris. A collection of French art treasures by Gauguin, Renoir, Manet, Degas and other masters housed at Paris’ Jeu de Paume Museum are boxed up and bound for Germany by train, under the supervision of Col. Franz von Waldheim, played by British actor Paul Scofield (“A Man of All Seasons”). Frankenheimer puts the commanding stage actor in the same class as the legendary Laurence Olivier (“Hamlet,” “Wuthering Heights”).
Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), the curator of the museum, spells out the potential loss to resistance leader Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster), a train-yard inspector. “If you could just stop the train,” she says. “The paintings are the heritage of France. They’ve taken our land, our food. They lived in our houses. And now they’re trying to take our art.” Adding to the tension: Allied bombers are scheduled to hit the train yard the next morning.
(1-3) Col. Franz von Waldheim arrives at Paris’ Jeu de Paume Museum to box up a collection of French art treasures bound for Germany. (4&5) The colonel tries to find out why the paintings are not on a train. Labiche shows the orders from Von Rundstedt, military commander, Western Front, who ordered the train to be bumped for a special armament train.
The all-important secondary characters are mostly played by French actors, including Jacques Marin as the Rive-Reine station master, Jeanne Moreau as the windowed hotel keeper, and Michel Simon as Papa Boule, the aging railman. German actors Wolfgang Priess and Richard Münch play Major Herren and Gen. Von Lubitz, respectively.
Frankenheimer’s commentary, which was first available on the 1992 MGM/UA laserdisc, is informative, with insightful stories and technical know-how – just like all of his commentaries. Always regarded as the thinking-man’s director (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May”), he got his start directing CBS’ “Playhouse 90” live television dramas in the late 1950s.
As “The Train’’ opens with a German officer’s car pulling up in front of the museum, he recalls how frigid it was that night in December in 1963. It was also the night he married American actress Evans Evans. The documentary-style production was filmed in France, Frankenheimer’s home following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June 1968. He had been close to the Kennedy family and had driven the candidate to the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles the night he was gunned down.
“The Train” was the fourth of five collaborations between Frankenheimer and Lancaster (“Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Seven Days in May”). The athletic leading man had been a circus performer and he shows his prowess here, jumping on and off the trains. “No other actor could’ve done those stunts. I don’t think anyone moves better than Burt Lancaster,” says Frankenheimer.
(1) Labiche arrives for a resistance meeting on a nearby river barge to discuss the train and the art treasures. (2) Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon), the curator of the museum, spells out the potential loss if the paintings are not saved. (3) French character actor Michel Simon plays Papa Boule, the aging railman. (4) Frankenheimer positioned the camera at a low angle to show the size and power of the locomotive. (5) A German soldier questions engineman Pesquet (Charles Millot) why steam was released from the armament train. causing several soldiers to get their eyes burned. (6&7) From the control tower a German officer views the exchange between Pesquet and another officer.
Originally, Arthur Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde”) was in the director’s chair, but Lancaster, who also was one of the producers, fired him after a week. He and co-producer Jules Bricken felt Penn’s version lacked “physicality,” screenwriter Julie Kirgo says in an essay included in the accompanying booklet.
Frankenheimer orchestrated the dynamic Allied bombing scene with special effects supervisor Lee Zavitz – a mammoth undertaking that took six weeks to place 5,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline. With 20-plus cameras rolling, the scene lasts just 50 seconds, but everything was real, with no miniatures. Frankenheimer did the French authorities a favor: The yard was already scheduled for demolition.
After the first cut, United Artists wanted one more action sequence. Frankenheimer said it would cost $500,000 -- $5 million today. Labiche engineers a train racing 70 mph toward a mountain tunnel as a British Spitfire bears in at 300 mph. It took two weeks to shoot, mounting cameras on the train, the Spitfire, a helicopter, and on the ground.
In a second commentary with film historian Steve Mitchell, author Steven Jay Rubin says “The Train” is one of the last epic black and white films. “In many ways, it was a black-and-white war, and it perfectly brings WWII films to life,” he says.
The Blu-ray also houses a brief 1964 making-of feature with behind-the-scenes footage of a $50,000 camera getting wiped out during a planned train accident scene.
10:00 a.m. - Allied bombing raid
The original United Artists 35mm camera negative (1.66:1) was scanned and mastered in TRUE 4K and delivers excellent, consistent natural film grain and superb clarity and texture. Cinematographers Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz used a high f-stop on Mitchell cameras mounted with spherical lenses to get Frankenheimer’s trademark deep focus.
Compared to the 2021 KL Studio Classics Blu-ray, this is a major upgrade. Hundreds of thousands of marks and defects were removed for this new 4K master.
The HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading gives more detail in the highlights and mid-tones while producing deeper, darker shadows without losing detail. It’s a dramatic cinematic experience. The video was encoded onto a 100 GB disc – the Megabits average in the mid-70s per second, while the new Blu-ray outputs around 38. The HDR peak brightness hits 1,015 nits and averages 154.
The original two-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack provides a solid front soundstage with heavy dialogue, explosions, and gun blasts. French composer Maurice Jarre’s (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago”) lively score is also available as an isolated track. A new Dolby Digital six-channel reprocessed soundtrack has been added, but I still prefer the original mono.
How good is this remastered classic? “The Train is already on our short list of the best TRUE 4K imagery for 2023.
– Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch Producer