Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Von Ryan's Express (1965)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Effects, Sound Effects - Walter Rossi

Frank Sinatra Trevor Howard Von Ryan's Express Oscar Academy Award
Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
April 18, 1966 was a great night for the crews of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago, with the two films combining to win ten Oscars, including five in the technical categories (Color Cinematography, Color Art Decoration-Set Decoration, Color Costume Design, Editing, and Sound).  The only two technical categories in which they were eligible that they did not receive nominations for were the two effects categories: Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects.  This was good news for Sound Effects designers Treg Brown of The Great Race and Walter Rossi of Von Ryan's Express, and the Special Visual Effects designers John Stears of Thunderball and J. McMillan Johnson of The Greatest Story Ever Told, because with only two nomination slots in each category, the absence of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago gave them the openings to earn Oscar nominations in the only two technical categories in which the two films did not take home trophies or even receive nominations.  Unfortunately for Walter Rossi, who received the sole Oscar nomination for Von Ryan's Express, he lost the coin toss in his category and missed out on winning his second Academy Award as Brown took home the Oscar following the sole nomination of his career.

Von Ryan's Express was based on the novel of the same name by David Westheimer, who like his protagonist was shot down over Italy and spent time in a prison camp run by the German Wehrmacht.  Unlike his protagonist, Westheimer did not lead an escape of his fellow prisoners by stealing a train and taking his men to freedom in Switzerland.  The story is an exciting one, and the screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon perfectly mixes tension, action, and comedy to create a very exciting story out of a simple premise.  The only thing they failed to do was to create a compelling lead character, and despite Sinatra's unrivaled screen charisma, Colonel Ryan has no evident personality.  There are scenes early in the film that attempt to set him up as an antihero reminiscent of Paul Newman's Hud, but these aren't developed much further and the resulting character is almost entirely one-dimensional.

Though the supporting characters are equally underdeveloped, the supporting cast is wonderful, particularly Trevor Howard (who I also appreciated in Sons and Lovers) and Edward Mulhare.  Raffaella Carra is seductive in her performance of the poorly contrived Gabriella, but brings little to the role other than her beauty.

Von Ryan's Express is full of scenes of train engines, gunfire, airplanes, and gunfire from airplanes, and thus was all but a lock for a nomination in 1966.  Walter Rossi did outstanding work, and I'm curious to see The Great Race to see what topped him for an Academy Award.

With a more compelling protagonist, Von Ryan's Express could have been a truly wonderful film.  Without one, it is still an enjoyable and well plotted POW escape film, but ultimately it falls short of many of its contemporaries.


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