Von Ryan's Express

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Von Ryan's Express
Theatrical release poster by Tom Chantrell
Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Saul David
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes
Joseph Landon
Based on Von Ryan's Express 
by David Westheimer
Starring Frank Sinatra
Trevor Howard
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
June 23, 1965
Running time
117 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5.76 million[1]
Box office $17,111,111[2]

Von Ryan's Express is a World War II adventure film, released in 1965, about a group of Allied prisoners who conduct a daring escape by hijacking a freight train and fleeing through German-occupied Italy to Switzerland. It stars Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard, and is based on the novel by David Westheimer. It was directed by Mark Robson. The film changes several aspects of the novel, most notably the ending, which is considerably more upbeat in the book. It became one of Frank Sinatra's most successful films.


Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who is shot down over Italy. He is captured by Italian troops and taken to a POW camp, run by the cruel Blackshirt Major Basilio Battaglia (Adolfo Celi). The camp is mainly populated by British prisoners.

The previous Allied commanding officer, who was British, has recently died, as a result of harsh camp discipline, including being placed in the metal "sweat box." When Ryan arrives in camp, Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard) is the Senior British officer. The American colonel, being senior to Fincham, assumes command of the prisoners.

Ryan pays respect to his predecessor by refusing to sit in the late commanding officer's chair. When a U.S. prisoner (one of only eight) is about to be punished for stealing rations, Ryan discovers that he was stealing medicine, which Fincham had ordered be stashed for a future escape attempt. Ryan orders that the drugs be dispensed as necessary.

Next, he shows the Italian guards the prisoners' escape tunnels, which are under construction. This infuriates the British prisoners. When Battaglia and his second-in-command, and Anglo-Italian translator, Captain Vittorio Oriani (Sergio Fantoni), do not keep their word to improve conditions, as agreed, Ryan orders the prisoners to strip and burn their filthy clothes, forcing Battaglia to issue new ones. Battaglia does so, but throws Ryan into the "sweat box" as a punishment.

After hearing of the Italian capitulation to the Allies, the guards flee. The British promptly put Battaglia on trial as a war criminal, and allow Oriani to defend him. Battaglia portrays himself as a broken man who has repudiated fascism. Ryan orders him to not be executed but, instead, to be put in the "sweat box."

The men depart on a long trek across the Italian countryside, before hiding in an ancient Roman ruin for the night. Oriani moves forward in an attempt to contact Allied forces. When morning comes, Germans swarm out of the forest and recapture the prisoners, killing several. Fincham is furious because he thinks Oriani has betrayed them. When the POWs are put on a train, they find a severely battered Oriani in the prisoner carriage. Battaglia is outside, gloating, and they realise they were betrayed to the Germans by the former camp commandant.

The Nazis shoot all the sick prisoners, causing the irate Fincham to shout, "You'll get your Iron Cross now, von Ryan!" The train travels to Rome, where the men are allowed to eat and a German officer, Major von Klemment (Wolfgang Preiss), takes command of the train.

Ryan discovers that the floorboards of the boxcar are loose and he pries a hole in the floor. That night, when the train stops to refuel, Ryan, Fincham and Fincham's Lieutenant, Franklin Orde, sneak out from underneath the train and kill several of the guards, taking their guns and helmets. They free a carload of the POWs who help them kill the remaining guards. Ryan and Fincham capture Major von Klemment and his Italian mistress, Gabriella (Raffaella Carrà). As the train moves out, another train appears behind them. Von Klemment reveals that the second train is carrying German troops and is on the same schedule. This will prevent their escape. Further, von Klemment is to receive orders at each railway station. A German-speaking Allied chaplain, Captain Gregory Costanzo (Edward Mulhare), is enlisted to impersonate the German commander to ensure their passage through the next station in Florence.

Through the documents received in Florence, they realise that both trains are headed towards Innsbruck in Nazi- occupied Austria. Through trickery and a forged signature, the prisoners switch their train onto a different line at Bologna. The troop train continues on toward Innsbruck.

Major von Klemment and Gabriella are kept tightly bound and gagged but Gabriella conceals a piece of a broken glass to cut their bonds. At a water stop, Major von Klemment and Gabriella escape, killing Orde. Both are shot dead by Ryan.

By this time, SS troops, led by the determined Colonel Gortz (John Van Dreelen), have discovered the ruse. The prisoners put the train on a siding, but discover that it leads to a secret German facility. Shortly, the facility is bombed by Allied aircraft. The train races through the facility, bombs exploding everywhere, and several cars catch fire. A number of men are wounded.

After the train moves again, the (Italian) engineer and Oriani disable the signals at one signal box, disabling the station's track displays and confusing the Germans. Following this, they re-route the train up to neutral Switzerland through manual switching without being noticed.

Gortz boards a train, with troops, to pursue. As the Alps appear, the prisoner train is attacked by German aircraft. One manages to destroy a section of track at a key bridge. The POWs replace the damaged track as the SS race up from behind. Ryan, Fincham, Sgt. Bostick (Brad Dexter) and others hold off the German soldiers, but many are killed in the process.

The prisoner train moves out, with the defenders running to jump onboard. Fincham makes it and desperately reaches back for Ryan, with the Germans in pursuit. Ryan is shot and killed by Gortz just as the train crosses into Switzerland.

The film ends with a voice-over by Fincham, repeating his early comment to Ryan, "If only one gets out, it's a victory."



Original novel[edit]

The novel was published in 1963. The novelist David Westheimer had been a POW during World War Two. He witnessed the bombing of Bolzano in 1943 from a box car.[3] The New York Times book reviewer said the novel "has everything for the screen but the camera directions."[4]


The novel was a best seller and film rights were bought by 20th Century Fox for a reported $125,000.[5] The studio assigned Saul David to produce and Mark Robson to direct. Robson had intended to make The Centurians but this was delayed when his chosen star, Anthony Quinn was unavailable.[6] Frank Sintatra had read the novel and wanted to buy the film rights himself; when he heard they had been lost to Fox he offered his services for the lead role.[7]

Von Ryan’s Express was a project keenly undertaken by 20th Century Fox, which was still financially reeling after the extravagance and critical bashing of Cleopatra. Fox, in a bid to prove that they were still able to make films on an epic scale, shot extensively on location in Europe and built a full-scale prison camp as opposed to shooting on a backlot. It was producer Saul David's first film for Fox. He followed it with Our Man Flint, Fantastic Voyage and In Like Flint.


Rumours of a personality clash between star Frank Sinatra, who was flown by helicopter to the set, and director Mark Robson were not enough to cause problems as the film was shot with relatively little trouble. However, Sinatra did insist that the ending of the film be altered: ending any chance of a sequel. Sinatra also insisted the film be shot in Panavision rather than Fox's CinemaScope.[8]

The film score was written by Jerry Goldsmith.[9]

Von Ryan's Express achieved verisimilitude using aircraft, trains and wheeled vehicles photographed on location along with the occasional model. The fighters alluded to as Messerschmitts were indeed Messerschmitt Bf 108s. A majority of the film was shot on location around Northern Italy in Cortina d'Ampezzo and Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence. But the railway sequence at the film's conclusion was shot in the limestone gorge of El Chorro near Málaga in Andalucía, Spain.[10] Interiors were completed at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, California.

Locomotives used[edit]

The main locomotive used in this film is an Italian ALCO built class 735, while in the final chase sequence an Italian Franco-Crosti class 743 acts as a Nazi locomotive. No unit of these locomotive classes survives today in operational condition.


Critics liked Von Ryan's Express. Variety noting that, "Mark Robson has made realistic use of the actual Italian setting of the David Westheimer novel in garmenting his action in hard-hitting direction and sharply-drawn performances."[11] Frank Sinatra's daughter Nancy noted in her biography of her father that his performance fuelled speculation of another Academy Award nomination. Time Out London called the film a "ripping adventure" that was "directed with amused panache by Robson, and helped no end by a fine cast...",[12] while the BBC's TV, film and radio listings magazine The Radio Times described it as "a rattlingly exciting Second World War escape adventure, with a well-cast Frank Sinatra..."[13]

The film grossed $17,111,111[2] ($128,486,917 in 2014 consumer dollars) at the North American box-office, equating to $7,700,000 ($57,819,113 in 2014 consumer dollars) taken in box office rentals. Variety ranked Von Ryan’s Express as the 10th highest grossing film of 1965. Additionally, this would be Sinatra’s highest grossing and biggest earning film of the decade.

The film was nominated for a "Best Sound Editing" (Walter Rossi) Academy Award in 1966,[14] while the Motion Picture Sound Editors also nominated the film for "Best Sound Editing" in a Feature Film.

British Channel 4 ranked Von Ryan's Express number 89 on their list of 100 Greatest War Films, commenting, "A ripping yarn culminating in a wild train dash through [Italy], with director Mark Robson cranking up the tension and releasing it with some excellent action set-pieces."[15] It has a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p254
  2. ^ a b "Von Ryan's Express, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 22, 2013. 
  3. ^ Books and Authors: Military Held a Culprit Projected Challenges Derring-Do Movie Book Reissued New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 20 Dec 1963: 27
  4. ^ A Reader's Report By MARTIN LEVIN. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 12 Jan 1964: BR24.
  5. ^ 'Von Ryan's Express' Will Star Sinatra: Robson to Produce War Story; Taylor as 'Young Cassidy' Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 16 Apr 1964: C8.
  6. ^ Robson Will Drive Von Ryan's Express: 'Dice of God' to Get Shake; Image of Latins Challenged Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 12 Mar 1964: C11.
  7. ^ Sinatra Swings Upward By PETER BARTHOLLYWOOD.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 18 Apr 1965: X9.
  8. ^ "The CinemaScope Wing 8". The American WideScreen Museum. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  9. ^ Clemmensen, Christian. Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004) tribute at Filmtracks.com. Retrieved 2011-04-14.
  10. ^ Travel Andalusia, Spain
  11. ^ Von Ryan's Express at Variety
  12. ^ Von Ryan's Express at Time Out
  13. ^ Von Ryan's Express at The Radio Times
  14. ^ "The 38th Academy Awards (1966) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  15. ^ 100 Greatest War Films of all time

External links[edit]