This is my first entry in the WW2 Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Essentials and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.
The best WWII P.O.W. movie ever, hands down, in my opinion, is The Great Escape. But any number of P.O.W. movies can easily take the #2 spot on my list. It all depends on my mood at the time. Re-watch-ability is the key factor in a P.O.W. movie, and great acting has to be top of the list in judging that factor. Therefore, at times, my second favorite WWII P.O.W. movie has been, alternately, Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, King Rat, and even, on occasion, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
But more often than not, that second place is occupied by Von Ryan's Express. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Frank Sinatra film because a) I like Sinatra as an actor, and b) the novel by David Westheimer on which the movie was based was one of the first adult novels I ever read. Although there are a few significant changes in the film version, including the final denouement for Sinatra's Col. Ryan, the film adaptation is at least well done, and well acted. Especially by Sinatra and Trevor Howard as Ryan's camp nemesis, Maj. Fincham.
Von Ryan's Express (1965):
Col. Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra) has to ditch his plane in Italian territory. He is taken prisoner to the local Italian P.O.W. camp run by the ruthless and sadistic Maj. Battaglia (Adolfo Celi) and currently being led on the prisoners side by ranking officer Maj. Fincham (Trevor Howard).
Ryan takes over command of the prisoners, being the ranking officer, and immediately starts to butt heads with Fincham. Ryan, knowing that the Italian liberation is just days away, insists on doing the best to cooperate with their captors, which includes revealing an escape tunnel to Battaglia. Although Ryan has ulterior motives, such as better treatment for the prisoners, Fincham and his 9th Fusiliers cadre immediately start derogatorily calling him "von Ryan", implying that Ryan's sympathies are more aligned with the enemy.
When Ryan has the prisoners strip and have the lice ridden dirty uniforms set on fire, ostensibly to get the clean clothes Battaglia has been hoarding, the commandant issues the uniforms, but has his revenge by putting Ryan in the camp "sweat box" (the same place where the camp's previous prisoners' commander had died). But a short time later news of Italy's surrender causes all the Italian soldiers to desert. Ryan is released from his prison to find that Fincham and his cadre intend to conduct a court martial of Battaglia in the field.
Instead of letting this happen, Ryan insists that Battaglia be allowed to live and put in the "sweat box". Then Ryan and the P.O.W.s head out for freedom, accompanied by Battaglia's second-in-command, Capt. Oriani (Sergio Fantoni), whom it is revealed actually has sympathies for the Allies. With Oriani's help the men make it to a deserted fortress and Oriani goes to scout out the territory ahead.
But the Germans, who have been to the deserted camp, and freed Battaglia, capture them. Initially Fincham thinks Oriani betrayed them, but he is revealed to also be a prisoner of the Germans. The Germans put all the prisoners on board a train (minus the wounded which they kill) and bound the train towards the homeland.
Ryan comes up with an idea how they can escape, which involves tunneling through the floorboards of the train, attacking each guard and replacing them with a P.O.W. and then later escaping at an opportune moment. This plan is thrown into havoc at one point however, and thus Ryan has to revise the plan. Instead they commandeer the train and systematically begin to reroute it so it heads to neutral Switzerland.
As stated above, there are several changes between the novel and the actual film. But the film can be viewed as an entity of its own if you have not read the book, with no after effects. It should be noted that the ending is different, and the ending you see in the movie was done at the behest of Sinatra himself. I won't reveal the final scene here, but it was done that way because Sinatra had some big pull to get it done his way.
Drive safely, folks.