The Train: French “Pot in the Fire” Stew

Year Released: 1964
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon
(Not Rated, 133 min.)

"If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live." Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forget all of Hollywood's hyped heist films and see one based on the real thing. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 film starring the legendary Burt Lancaster is about a real life World War II heist with real men and real machines. Two men of iron will fight for control of an iron horse -- a steam engine loaded with France’s art treasures headed for a quick getaway over the German border.

Compare the imagery to 2010's The Town and see if somehow our world hasn’t turned completely upside down lately: Machine gun toting “nuns” mowing down the Boston police in Affleck’s film versus the French resistance using their wits, greasy hands, and sweat soaked skulls to thwart the theft of their greatest paintings in this one.

It’s not an easy sell, either. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) secretly a member of the resistance as well as the one in charge of the train yard, at first dismisses the plea from the shy museum curator who has learned that Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to loot France of every last Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, and Monet. But Labiche has just lost one of his men that morning and he’s in no mood to quibble over art. The spilled blood is more vivid than blue of Monet’s “Water Lilies.”

“I won’t waste lives on paintings.”

Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) pleads her case so well that one almost forgets the easy French capitulation and the Vichy collaboration with their Nazi overlords. 

“They’ve taken our land, our food, they live in our houses, and now they’re trying to take our art. This beauty, this vision of life, born out of France, our special vision, our trust…we hold it in trust don’t you see, for everyone? There are worse things to risk your life for than that.”

But stubborn pragmatist Labiche is not buying it. He even suggests they blow up the train to keep the art out of Nazi hands. “Don’t you have copies of them?” he asks, clearly establishing his philistine credentials. Much of the film’s beauty is Labiche’s stubborn resistance to the pull of art or any heroics to go along with it. 

Papa Boule (Michel Simon), a cantankerous engineer, his face a mass of sagging flesh, his eyes reduced to bleary slits, is the first to be ensnared by that capricious goddess, art. 

“Renoir…I knew a girl who modeled for Renoir. She smelled of paint.” 

We know right then that he is going down, and Papa Boule does it in style, slyly putting three French coins in the engine to stall it on down the line, but making a death defying getaway through the train yard even as it comes under allied attack.

But his part is an errant piece of the complex tactics going on in the train yard under Labiche’s sly double-edged command. It is August 1944 and the Allies are on the verge of taking Paris –thus Von Waldheim’s hurry to get the art out of Dodge – but the Germans are also desperate to move their weapons out, and most of the trains have been commandeered to carry them. Labiche just has to stall them long enough for the scheduled 10 AM Allied bombing at the station and they will be wiped out. For him the artwork is collateral damage. 

Lancaster, who was trained in the circus, does all his own stunts, sliding down a ladder and running along the tracks and jumping on Papa Boule’s train in a desperate bid to keep him from the scheduled bombing. Not bad for a 51 year old, and perhaps one reason this film has been voted the number one train movie by Trains Magazine.

Paul Scoffield plays Von Waldheim with equal skill. He is as ruthless and relentless as any stereotyped Nazi, but his motivation is more complex. He argues that the art is worth more than gold, a capital asset for his country, but we come to see his fatal attraction to the paintings more of an obsession than anything else. The man feels more for the oil on canvas than any of his fellow humans, while Labiche, immune to the pull of art and loath to play the hero, counts each life as sacred.

The closest we ever come to romance is the interchange Labiche has with an innkeeper (Jeanne Moreau) when he is under guard by the occupying Germans. She reluctantly covers for him when he steals away to make a clandestine phone call, thus risking her life. “I run a hotel, not a madhouse,” she says looking over the beaten down door the Germans have left her. But she is wrong. Not her hotel, but the whole world has become a madhouse and the young war widow gives Labiche a soft prize of intimacy, one offered much more reluctantly than the sexual favors of our equally mad world – her name. 

“It’s Christine,” she tells Labiche softly as he exits with his German keepers.

Here are links to some of my favorite train films:

Murder on the Orient Express

Strangers on a Train

The Lady Vanishes

The 39 Steps

Transsiberian

*The Train is available for immediate download at Netflix.

— Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Burt Lancaster’s Labiche makes a high wire escape from the guarded French hotel room worthy of this former circus performer. He barely makes it back before the Germans are on to his possible escape, and they beat down his door before he can get in there. He only makes it to the hotel kitchen, a homey sort of room, and he smiles over his humble dish of stew as they rush in to confront him. “I had to get something to eat,” he tells them without missing a beat, dipping his crust of bread into the bowl.

Let’s cook up a French stew worthy of his heroism, and the fire in his heart. Aptly named, Pot au Feu or “Pot in the Fire” hails from Different Drummer’s own Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook.

It’s just the thing to warm you as the nights get a little colder. And think about my mystery cookbook as you start your post Christmas shopping, I might add in some shameless self-promotion.

Bon appétit!

French “Pot in the Fire” Stew

Pot au Feu or “Pot in the Fire”

French Boiled Dinner

In this traditional recipe, the roast or poultry is stewed in its own broth with herbs, spices, and a healthy crop of vegetables. When done, the beef and vegetables are served separately from the broth, which is served steaming hot as a first course.  

  • 1 1/2-pound beef boneless chuck roast
  • 1 marrow bone (optional)
  • 8 black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 1/2 pounds chicken drumsticks
  • 10 to 12 small carrots
  • 10 to 12 small onions or 3 large onions, cut in fourths
  • 3 medium turnips, cut into fourths
  • 4 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp pepper

Place beef, marrow bone, peppercorns, 1 teaspoon salt, the thyme and bay leaf in Dutch oven. Add water. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer 1 hour. Add chicken; cover and simmer 1 hour longer.

Add carrots, onions, turnips, and celery; sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Cover and simmer until beef and vegetables are tender, about 45 minutes. Remove chicken and vegetables to warm platter; slice beef. Strain broth; serve in soup bowls as a first course.

10 to 12 servings.

Recipe Source: Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook