Von Ryan's Express

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Aug 09, 2013
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Mark Robson

Release Date(s)

1965 (November 6, 2012)

Studio(s)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Review

Ah… the classic World War II prison escape film!  Released by Fox in 1965, on the heels of the financial disaster that was Cleopatra, Mark Robson’s Von Ryan’s Express surely isn’t the best of the genre (that honor would likely go to The Great Escape or Stalag 17), but it’s still a fine entry and – if somewhat farfetched – a darned entertaining one too.

Colonel Joseph Ryan (played with typical stoic swagger by Frank Sinatra) is an American Army Air Corps fighter pilot shot down over southern Italy.  He’s taken to a POW camp and there meets Major Fincham (played by Trevor Howard), in charge of the 9th Battalion of the British Royal Fusiliers who have been held there for over two years.  They’re giving the Italian officer in charge of the camp, Major Battaglia (Adolfo Celi), plenty of hell and he’s making their lives miserable in return.  Ryan, the newly ranking officer, doesn’t see much sense in this given that the Allies are steamrolling up the boot of Italy and the camp will surely be liberated soon.  Sure enough, the Italians and their German minders disappear one night, and the prisoners are abandoned.  But as they try to make it to the coast and freedom, Ryan’s decision to spare Battaglia’s life comes back to bite them – he betrays them to the Germans and they’re quickly captured and forced on to a POW train headed for Austria.  Improbably, Ryan, Fincham and the Fusiliers manage to take over the train, using the uniforms of their killed Nazi minders to fool German officials at planned food and water stops along the route.  Now they have to cook up an unlikely plan to divert the train to Switzerland instead of Austria, and thus escape to freedom.  Like I said, it’s farfetched.  But it’s a helluva lot of fun.

Fox’s Blu-ray release features an HD transfer that’s serviceable at best – certainly improved from the previous DVD release but not as good as you might be hoping.  There’s moderate grain throughout, which is probably to be expected given the film’s age, but detail is generally okay other than the usual titles and optical transitions.  The problem is that both color and contrast are inconsistent throughout the film.  Flesh tones are off – often too warm – while blacks have an occasional purple tinge.  Not infrequently, the color will shift noticeably in the middle of a scene.  If I had to guess, it’s some kind of an age-related stability issue the original film elements.  More than anything else, Von Ryan’s Express probably needs a serious restoration.  The audio fares somewhat better.  The film’s original mono mix has been upgraded to 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.  That improves clarity but don’t expect a lot of surround play.  Basically, the 5.1 mix just widens out the sound field somewhat, with occasional atmospheric fill from the rear channels.  Jerry Goldsmith’s score is accurately presented.

Although there’s nothing new in terms of special features on this Blu-ray, all of the extras from Fox’s previous DVD release have made the jump to Blu, including 4 featurettes (Reliving the Adventure of Von Ryan’s Express – 14 mins, Hollywood and Its War Films – 6 mins, The Music of Von Ryan’s Express – 8 mins, and Bringing Movies to Life: The Legacy of Jerry Goldsmith – 12 mins).  All are in SD.  You also get the film’s English and Spanish trailers in HD and a pair of HD TV spots.  The best of the extras by far is an isolated track highlighting the Goldsmith’s score with select commentary by film historians.

On the whole, I would say that while the Blu-ray could look better… but it could look a lot worse too.  At $16.99 on regular sale on Amazon, this disc might not be a steal and it might not be especially noteworthy, but it’s at least a decent DVD replacement, especially if you’re a fan of the film.  Just go in with modest expectations and you should feel okay about the upgrade.

- Bill Hunt

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