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The struggle in the film is the struggle by the French resistance to prevent a trainload of great art from being sent to Germany before the Allies arrive. The protagonist is Burt Lancaster, who doesn't even attempt a French accent. The antagonist is a German colonel played by Paul Scofield who cares more for art than for humans, even fellow German soldiers. The poster for the movie captures that pretty well.
It was filmed big which fit well with it's love for trains. The massiveness of those vehicles are felt throughout the film. I don't think I have witnessed multiple train collisions and derailments in a movie before. He used real, full-sized trains to crash into each other and destroyed a real train yard in an Allied bombing scene. He filmed it in France. Lancaster did his own stunts. An off camera sprain from a golf game was incorporated into the character's struggle. I thought Lancaster was acting so well as he hobbled up and down a mountain. In fact, he really was hobbled.
But the philosophical question Lancaster's character asks in the beginning and his female rescuer asks in the middle, is, how many lives are worth the price of priceless art? Is a crate of van Gogh's worth one life? Is a crate of can Gogh's and a crate of Gaugin's worth two lives? Are the crates just oil on canvas or are they a nation's heritage? How many lives is a nation's heritage worth? Would someone die to preserve the Magna Carta? Would someone die to preserve an original copy of the Declaration of Independence? What are they worth? Are originals worth more than copies?
At the end, Frankenheimer poses the question visually. Lancaster successfully derails the train one last time and the Germans abandon it. But before they do, they turn their machine gun on the French hostages they had used to deter Lancaster from blowing up their train. In the end, Lancaster stands between the boxes with the names of all the famous artists whose works they contain and the dead bodies of his fellow citizens. Throughout the movie, his accomplices are killed off by the Nazis, until almost all the minor French characters are gone. He alone is left with art he has never seen nor cares about and the bodies of friends and neighbors.
Is art or heritage worth more than one human life? Would Frankenheimer want his films preserved in exchange of a fellow humans life? No. I don't think most of the rational artists represented in the film would disagree. I did have to qualify that with "rational." Art represents life, it cannot replace life. Art itself is a copy, a representation of the real. Every life is sacred in its essence. There is sacred art, but it's the reality it represents that makes it sacred. But art can outlive a generation. But a generation can lose interest in the art. That is why the same movies are made year after year. We forget.
I'm glad Frankenheimer doesn't answer the question for his audience. The movie ends with Lancaster walking down the road, away from the bodies and the boxed art, as if the art had coffins, dignity, but not the humans. How do you argue?
The art could not be appreciated by the dead, and the living one did not care. Humans are the unique art of a single artist, God, made in his image. That's why they matter most. That's why, as a follower of Jesus, I oppose the destruction of humans, especially the most vulnerable, in the womb and in weakened states, aged or infirm. If one truly does love art, then one cannot value any pieces by the lessers more than by the greatest.