The Train (1964)

Spoiler alert
Spoiler alert – this scene comes at the end of the film. If you haven’t seen ‘The Train’, you should no longer deny your­self the pleasure; and prefer­ably do it before you watch this clip.

John Frankenheimer’s war film was made during his 60’s exile in Europe and has the gritty quality asso­ci­ated with many of his films (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Seconds). Franken­heimer was a director with a polit­ical sens­ib­ility long before Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone and an opponent of the McCarthy black­lists who never fitted in well with the Holly­wood establishment.

The Train is in English with an Amer­ican star, Burt Lancaster, but it has a definite European feel and features many well known French actors. It tells the story of Labiche (Lancaster), a railway worker and resist­ance fighter, who is given the task of preventing the Nazis from ship­ping a consign­ment of famous French paint­ings back to Germany as the allies advance. Pitted against him is Von Wald­heim (Paul Scofield), a Nazi Colonel, who is ruth­lessly determ­ined to succeed in his mission of taking the paint­ings back to Berlin.

Char­acter case study: Prot­ag­onist and Antagonist

Labiche is a simple man unwill­ingly obeying his orders. He has no appre­ci­ation of art and is appalled at the cost of his mission in terms of human lives. He does what he is told from a sense of duty. Von Wald­heim is an aesthete and also wants to ‘save’ the paint­ings for the sake of a ‘higher purpose, the Nazi ideal. In the service of that cause, he will make any sacri­fice and human lives mean nothing to him.

They are not just oppon­ents then but repres­ent­at­ives of two very different sets of values, polar oppos­ites apart, and each equally determ­ined to pursue their goals to what Robert McKee calls ‘the end of the line’. The scene shown here is a classic example of a final confront­a­tion between the antag­onist and prot­ag­onist, where the conflict at the heart of the drama (the deep meaning) is converted into action.

Often these scenes can be crude; a raw phys­ical tussle. In this case, the under­lying themes are skil­fully and power­fully brought out through Von Waldheim’s diatribe and Labiche’s silent act of retri­bu­tion. The stark shots of the dead and the sten­cilled crates that follow add a kind of coda; their news-footage quality reminding us of real atro­cities that were committed in the name of ideology.


© David Clough 2010

Next you could read

See the tech­nique notes on: Char­acter Models for an explan­a­tion of the terms ‘prot­ag­onist’ and ‘antagonist’.

See the tech­nique notes on The Three Act Struc­ture for an explan­a­tion of ‘deep meaning’.

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