I’ll give it to this movie – it was full of surprises that even a seasoned veteran of these “action packed POW escape” films couldn’t have planned for. The movie springs its biggest one on us right at the beginning. We’re in Italy and an American bomber crashes. I wasn’t surprised that the downed pilot was Frank Sinatra what with him being the star and all. What I was surprised about was how old he was. Once I got a gander at his craggy features I began to realize why it took so long to win World War II – all the soldiers went to bed after having dinner at 4:00 in the afternoon!
Frank was somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty years old when he made this movie. Fifty? Old Blue Eyes was more like Old Paint in this one. Frank was so old, they issued him a MedicAlert bracelet instead of dog tags!
I don’t want to ruin the movie for any of you out there with a fetish for watching senior citizens battle the Axis powers, but you didn’t have to be in the AARP to see problems for Frank when the final scene required him to run after a train while a bunch of Jerries shot at him. The only suspense in that scene was whether Frank would keel over from a heart attack before the Nazis pumped him full of lead.
In any case, after he gets shot down, he’s hauled off to an Italian POW camp that’s mainly populated by British soldiers and he becomes the senior officer. Shoot, when you’re that old I don’t think you could help but be the senior officer!
Ryan (Sinatra) demonstrates the superior intelligence of a superior American officer by telling the Brits that Italy is only a few weeks from liberation and that they should just ride things out as easy as possible. The Brits, led by Trevor Howard, are of the opinion that it’s their duty to try and escape and that if only one guy makes it out, they did their job.
Trev tries to keep control of the camp, but Ryan tells him he’s in charge and that as of now all these stupid escape attempts will cease and that the cafeteria will now be serving two flavors of Jell-O. He gets the nickname Von Ryan because the Brits see him as some kind of collaborator with the Italians.
Ryan then has all his boys strip down and burn their clothing in an effort to force the Italians to provide them with new clothing. Von Ryan gets the sweatbox for his trouble and is let out a few days later after all the Italians have fled and the POWs have been left to their own devices.
Further demonstrating the early onset of Alzheimer’s that he has, Ryan then begins to trust an Italian captain who had been helping run the camp and they decide to all march out to some ruins and meet up with some boats on the coast.
Trev is against trusting this guy and says he’ll just give them up to the Germans who are in the area. Ryan pooh poohs all that and the next thing you know they’re all being herded into a train by the Germans that captured them at the ruins!
But it wasn’t like Trev was right or anything. It turned out that that plan was so dumb, the Germans didn’t even need anyone to tip them off. You start to think that maybe we shouldn’t be worried about whether we can trust Captain Oriani (the same guy who played Teocrito in The Giant Of Marathon), but whether we shouldn’t get some kind of guardian appointed for Colonel Ryan.
Trev spends most of the first part of the train ride scowling at Ryan and complaining about all the POWs his dunderheaded plans had gotten killed so far. Ryan shows us some of that good old fashioned American know how and never say die no matter how ill-equipped you may be to deal with a given situation attitude when he starts tearing up the floor of the boxcar.
He and some of his posse drop out the bottom of the train and roll clear of the wheels and you’re hoping that Ryan’s Serenity Guards are empty when he started because they sure as hell will be full once he’s out from under that train!
After taking over the train Ryan concocts another plan to escape, this time through the Alps across the border to Switzerland. This leads to a series of tense moments aboard the train and at various pit stops.
Besides Sinatra being clearly too long in the tooth to be doing any of this convincingly, the other big problem with the film is that other than Sinatra’s character, no one else in the movie stands out so that you can even remember their name, let alone anything about them. Trev is probably the second biggest character and the only personality he has is that he doesn’t like Ryan!
Even though you’re hoping that Sinatra’s dentures don’t come loose when he’s heaving grenades at the Germans, he’s playing a character that displays a bit of depth, making bad decisions throughout the picture, realizing what stinkers they are, and having to live with all the POWs his dumb ass gets killed!
The last scenes with the trains and the mountains bring things to a solid close and the ending isn’t what you would expect from one of these POW movies. The good outweighs the bad in this one and fans of war-adventure movies shouldn’t be let down by it as long as they place a premium on action over character and don’t mind watching grandpa play war hero.
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