FF41 - Von Ryan's Express

Intro by John Roderick

Von Ryan's Express was released in June of 1965. We tend to think that we live in eventful times and end of the world is nigh. But let me just read you some highlights from the spring of 1965 to give you a sense of the world at the time:

On February 21st of that year, Malcolm X was assassinated. By March 2nd, the bombing of Vietnam commenced. March 8th: the first U.S. ground troops landed in Da Nang. March 9th: Martin Luther King marched on Selma. March 17th: LBJ sent what became the Voting Rights Act to Congress. March 18th: cosmonaut Alexey Leonov became the first person to walk in space. April 5th: My Fair Lady won eight Oscars and Mary Poppins won 5. May 12: West Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations for the first time.

May 16th and 17th Trent Reznor and Krist Novoselic were born one day apart. By May 21st, 30.000 students attended an antiwar teach-in at Berkeley where Ben Harrison's parents met and the first Skateboarding Championship was held. May 25th: Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston. June 6th: The Rolling Stones had their first number one hit with I Can't Get No Satisfaction. Then on the 23rd of June Von Ryan's Express was released. I will give you just a little more context: by July 25th, Dylan went electric. July 29th: The Beatles Help was released. August 11th: The Watts Riots commenced, and August 15th: The Beatles played Shea Stadium.

So: A lot going on! Sinatra also had just turned 50 and was situated as a kind of proxy for the entire Greatest Generation who after the assassination of JFK were entering middle age and for the first time considering they may not live forever and their insipid Mickey Mouse kids might take over the world. They still needed to prove that teenyboppers what their fab music and Beach Blanket Bingo couldn't compete with the smooth style of the Chairmen of the Board. Or could they? What is cooler than a pork pie hat, I ask you? What possible place in the universe has more appeal than Vegas? Ah, how they laughed!

Sinatra released four albums that year and started his own record label. He won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1966 which was the same year he married Mia Farrow. Although: It should be noted on the Grammy Award tip that the best Folk album award for 1965, were the nominees included Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Peter, Paul and Mary went to the Chipmunks singing The Beatles. So…

Anyway: Two generations we're just starting the big cultural power struggle that defined the second half of the 20th century and the Baby Boomers hadn't even yet learned to harness the power of mushrooms to bring us Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane. So the old guard got one last Sinatra-led Hurrah before they had to hunker down in front of the Carson show and console themselves with controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency and all the money and everything else for only 30 more years.

Anyway: I want you to picture Sinatra sitting on a velvet couch in a gray-hued mid-century apartment smoking cigarettes and signing contracts and reading scripts and banging cocktail waitresses two at a time and he reads this script and he says: (singing) Croonididelidi. I wanna do this movie! I should mention that I am also 50 years old at the time of this recording, also sitting on a velvet couch that was made in 1964, but I am busy searching Know Your Meme, trying to figure out if "on fleek" is still okay to use. I can only imagine what peak of his power Sinatra must have felt like.

In my case it seems to involve getting upgraded to Economy Comfort. Still, Sinatra is long dead by this point and I am mildly roasting him for this hit podcast so: Who knows! Maybe history will have the final say. Sinatra is fully entitled in 1965 to say: (singing) "I want a movie to showcase my talent. Doobidoo! something where I am a bad-ass. Bidoo!" and he is precisely that bad-ass in Von Ryan's Express, but with an interesting twist: He crashes his plane into the middle of what appears to be a normal Bridge on the River Kwai style movie. Here's the twist: It's in an Italian prison camp instead of a Japanese one and there are ginger-tinted British prisoners, already busy sweating through their tattered khaki uniforms, keeping a stiff upper lip well past the point of being sadistic all the way to being insane. You know, this is what British do in horror movies!

Von Ryan arrives and lets his Fonzie jacket do the talking, immediately dominating everyone by virtue of his rank and Americanness in a way both admirable and offputting. He is very rat-pack at the start in his manner and completely implausible. Remember: He spent the actual war years "Bop boogity boo boo be"-ing to Bobby Soxers and must have felt a little false in this role. But: There is clearly more to come. Sinatra is not even for a moment believable as a pilot, but then he admits as much within the film by explaining that he is a civilian pressed into service and doesn't know anything about war and doesn't care.

It is the move of a surprisingly unheroic character and then he doubles down on it a couple of times, making bad decisions that result in multiple deaths. Yet he never shows weakness or relinquishes control to the professional soldiers around him. This is kind of maddening, but it's a conceit that banishes doubt about Sinatra in the role. We accept him as von Ryan because von Ryan is skinny and unlikable but also fully in charge and he never wavers. From then on it's a Caper film. It wears around the first act looking for the right tone, sure, but in the end the tone is full on war movie and bad things happen! Von Ryan is wrong more often than he's right, but he wears us down.

There are quite a few train escape movies, including the already reviewed Force 10 from Navarone, but none would dare feature a train chase, let alone one that is actually suspenseful. Despite the fact that trains chasing each other is a hysterical premise, this is played straight to great effect. By the end the sanctuary of neutral Switzerland is tantalizingly close, just like earning an income from podcasting might seem to be. And then, just like podcasting, those dreams are cut short in a hail of bullets where everyone dies. If only one gets out, it is a victory on today's Friendly Fire as we discuss the 1965 Mark Robson directed Von Ryan's Express.

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