I missed The Monuments Men during its earlier theatrical run; I just saw it on DVD. The trailers for George Clooney’s World War II film had been promising, but the result was disappointing — and not just for me, according to the middling box-office and mixed reviews.
Good production values and a likable cast couldn’t mask the major flaw: a patchwork script that ended up stranding its characters in uneven segments — some good, some not. The subject matter — the search for art stolen by the Nazis — reminded me of an earlier movie I hadn’t seen in a while that, when I watched it again, was a far better film.
John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) details the efforts of ruthless Nazi Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) to move a stolen cache of art treasures from Paris before the Allies retake the city. He commandeers a train to Germany, forcing Resistance fighters, led by an initially reluctant Burt Lancaster, to somehow stop him without destroying the legacy he’s trying to confiscate. The cost in human lives mounts, underlining the basic conflict: Is even one piece of art worth a man’s life?
The Monuments Men concludes with an uplifting assurance of the value of that sacrifice. The ending of The Train, while still heroic, is bleaker and more complex, as Lancaster’s gritty Everyman faces off against Scofield’s urbane, disdainful Nazi. Between them lie the bodies of slaughtered hostages and carefully boxed masterpieces. It is an unforgettable conclusion with answers and images far less reassuring than those of the later film.
Filmed in black-and-white, The Train looks of a piece with those events it details. Most viewers in 1964 would have remembered newsreels of the war less than 20 years earlier. Lancaster and his French co-stars, including Jeanne Moreau, are strikingly unglamorous, while the distinguished stage actor Paul Scofield, in only his second film role and two years from his Oscar-winning turn in A Man for All Seasons, is the embodiment of Nazism, with its contempt for everyone and everything that did not conform to the ideals of the Twisted Cross.
The Train opens with a dialogue between Von Waldheim and Mlle Villard, curator of the looted museum (and the fictional counterpart of Rose Valland, whose book The Art Front: Defence of the Art Front, 1939-1945 provided the basis for the film). The same real-life woman was also the prototype of Cate Blanchett’s fictional character in Monuments, which was based on another book altogether. Both films play loosely with the facts without ever sacrificing the real canvas upon which the actual events and characters were traced. Such is the domain of cinematic art.
Curiously, eight years after The Train, Lancaster played an American commander forced to choose between saving art and killing Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge. The superb film, possibly even better than The Train, is Sydney Pollack’s genre-bending Castle Keep (1969). Based on a novel rather than history, the movie is one-of-a-kind, a war film that’s part-comedy, part-fable and totally memorable. Somewhat lost in the shuffle during its theatrical release, Castle Keep plays even better today, and the questions it raises are as viable as ever.