The Train, Trancers, Twelve o’Clock High

The Train (1964) ***1/2 Burt Lancaster plays a member-in-good-standing of the French Resistance during German occupation of France. The Germans have raided France of its greatest art treasures – Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet – and put them on a train bound for Germany. The colonel in charge (Paul Scofield) is obsessed with getting the art to Germany, where it would be treated as war booty. Since the art collection is portrayed as representing the heart of France, Lancaster – a railroad man by trade – does all he can to stop the train from reaching its destination.

There’s not a lot glossed over here, as many people are killed onscreen. The brutality of war is not ignored, but is rather put into a context that non-soldiers can appreciate – saving something that is part of normal, everyday life, not a war treasure like planes or guns.

John Frankenheimer scored big with this movie, and it was due to his own insistence on reality that the effects were as good as they were. We get to see trains collide in a massive wreck, and Frankenheimer used REAL trains! Add the effects to a plausible story line and a clever, pungent script, and you have a classic.

Trancers (1984) *** This low, low budget sci-fier is somewhat derivative, but it’s kind of a take-off on Bladerunner-type movies, rather than a ripoff of them. Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a detective in the future who’s sent back to 1985 to stop a madman who’s decided to kill the ancestors of the city council of Deth’s time. With the help of Lena (a young Helen Hunt), Deth fights Trancers (who have fallen under the control of the madman) and his own culture shock.

It’s a short movie (76 minutes), and things move pretty quickly; plot isn’t so much of a focus as a annoying gnat that appears from time to time. But for being so short, the characters are pretty well developed – and one huge bonus is that Deth isn’t an no necked, shoot-first idiot, as renegade cops are often portrayed.

Trancers is original, often-funny sci-fi cheese. It’s great to see Thomerson and Hunt – especially Hunt, who looks great.

Twelve o’Clock High (1949) **** There have been many films produced about World War II; some about the ground assault, some about the air raids, some from Allied viewpoints, some from German viewpoints. Many have had ensemble casts in them that took a back seat to the wartime action. This classic focuses on bombers being pushed to their absolute physical and emotional limits. Their commander, Gary Merrill, begins to show signs of the strain and is replaced by his superiors, who feel he’s becoming too attached to the soldiers (as opposed to focusing on the war objectives). The man who ordered the replacement, Gregory Peck, is ordered to take over for Merrill. But how long before Peck falls become what he loathes – a commander who runs on emotion and defies logic and orders?

Like many wartime movies, this one is chock full of action scenes. Peck pushes his soldiers to accomplish their bombing goals, doing all he can to improve morale and give his men something to fight for. Unlike many war movies, which had the soldiers fighting blindly, going grimly into battle without knowing why, this one makes the point that the men perform better knowing what their objectives are. In other words, the whole issue of war as reducing man to his basest state is touched on very neatly. These are not automatons programmed to do battle, these are real, thinking, breathing humans.

The acting is fantastic, with Peck getting a chance to play a little out of character as the tough commander. He’s supported ably by Merrill, Dean Jagger (who won an Oscar), and Hugh Marlowe. Recommended for action and war-movie fans.

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