Directed by John Frankenheimer, in August 1944 the German army tries to steal French paintings from Paris by transporting them to Germany, but the French resistance movement manages to prevent them from getting there.
On August 2, 1944 Paris has been occupied by Germans for 1,511 days. At night German soldiers are guarding a museum. A car arrives, and Col. Von Waldheim (Paul Schofield) goes into the museum and looks around and is admiring the paintings when Mlle. Villard (Suzanne Flon)
turns on a light and begins talking about a painting with him. He says it is degenerate art and that as an officer of the Third Reich he should detest it. She thanks him for protecting it for the last three years. She is grateful that she was not sent away, and he asks if he should thank her. She was terrified that the paintings would be lost. He says they have cash value, but she knows he appreciates the art. Some soldiers come in, and he tells her that they are moving the art works. He orders the captain to have them ready to be boarded on the train in the morning. They begin packing them in crates and labeling them with the last names of the famous artists.
Waldheim goes in his car to the railroad and asks what happened to his train. An officer tells him that it was canceled, and he asks who canceled it.
In an office Labiche (Burt Lancaster) tells Waldheim that he canceled the train. A German officer says he did it under his authority. Waldheim asks why a Frenchman is allowed to do this. Labiche says he did it because of a weapons train under orders from Von Rundstedt, and he shows him a paper. Waldheim asks how soon his train can leave. Labiche says when he gets another order from the German army. Waldheim says he will get the order and tells him to have the train ready to leave at 3:30 this afternoon.
German soldiers in an office building are burning crates full of documents. Waldheim goes in to see the Paris commandant and says the train he ordered was canceled, and he needs his order to get it running. An aide tells the commandant that the main highway has been cut by the Americans. Waldheim asks him to take initiative, and he asks what his cargo is. The commandant looks at the papers and says he does not share his opinion of art. He says he would not waste resources on degenerate art when transport is needed for the war effort. Waldheim asks him if it would be unwise to leave a billion reichsmarks in a bank in France that could equip ten Panzer divisions. Waldheim believes Berlin would want to have these valuable works. The commandant signs an authorization but warns him he may rescind it if conditions become more critical.
Labiche walks through an area busy with German soldiers to a boat on a river.
In the boat older Spinet (Paul Bonifas) introduces him to Mlle. Villard. She says the paintings belong to the French people. Didont (Albert Remy) says they are going in the train he is getting ready, and he is amazed at how much they are worth. She says they are worth more than money. She does not want them damaged because they cannot be replaced. She reads the list that includes Renoir, Cezanne, 64 Picassos, 29 Braques, Degas, Matisse. She says he chose the best paintings. Labiche asks her what she wants them to do, and she hopes he could stop the train. Didont and Pesquet (Charles Millot) say that Frenchmen stopping a German train can get them killed. She knows and asks if Paris will be free soon. Spinet says the latest report indicates that Paris will be liberated within a week. He asks Labiche if they can delay the train so that Waldheim will not be able to get it out of Paris. Labiche says they could blow it up, but they would shoot a few hostages. He asks her if the paintings are worth that. Spinet says that London considers the art important. Labiche says they have only three men left in this group out of the eighteen when they started. He says the people they lost could not be replaced either. He says they will take risks but not for paintings. She says they would not be wasted because the art belongs to the French people, a vision they hold in trust for the world. Labiche says they can’t help her. Spinet says it is his territory. Didont asks her if they have copies. She goes out. Labiche tells them that Bernard was picked up by the Germans this morning. Spinet asks about the train, and Labiche says it leaves in the morning at 9:15 and will stop at Vaires at 9:45 until 9:50 to pick up anti-aircraft guns. Spinet says it would be nice if they could delay it ten minutes because British planes will be bombing Vaires at 10. Labiche is not sure they can do it, but he tells Spinet that they will have the train waiting there at 10. Spinet goes out. Didont suggests they do something to get the art train since the Germans want it so much. Labiche says he needs another engineer for the art train, and he will give it to Papa Boule. He says it is an easy run, and the train will be in Germany by the next morning.
Papa Boule (Michel Simon) is instructing train workers how to lubricate the train. He says they should treat it like a woman. He goes into a bar, and Jacques (Jacques Marin) says Labiche is giving him a train going to Germany. Boule says important shipments go to the front. Jacques asks if he has read what is in the crates. Boule does not believe the Germans and says it could be champagne and perfume and whatever else the Germans want to steal. Jacques says he learned that they are paintings by great artists. He says these are the glory of France. He says the Allies may be there in three days. A German officer tells Boule he is to stay there and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Didont gets on the train. German soldiers are fastening equipment on flat cars, and the train begins moving at 9:18.
Waldheim arrives in a car and asks when they are leaving and learns as soon as it is dark. He is told he has a call and goes into a building. On the phone he says to tell the general that the train already left. Then he goes out and tells them to start the train immediately. Boule gets the train going.
The train arrives in Vaires at 9:45. Labiche is watching from a tower. Major Herren (Wolfgang Preiss) learns that the anti-aircraft are all aboard and orders the French engineer to get the train moving; but the engine leaves without the cars. On the remaining train Didont blasts a group of German soldiers with steam. He is asked why he did that, and he says he did it to keep it from blowing up. The Germans order him to move his train.
A German officer asks Labiche, who is watching with binoculars, what is going on down there, and he answers, “Sabotage.”
The train starts moving slowly and then stops and backs up.
Labiche gives an order to throw ten, and the man says it is stuck. Labiche tells him not to force it and tries to move it. When the train goes on the wrong track, the officer accuses Labiche of sabotage; but Labiche finds his pipe in the mechanism. A siren sounds, and Labiche sees Boule moving. He goes out and waves a flag. Boule is told he can’t drive a train during an air raid, but Boule disagrees. Labiche runs down there and gets on the moving train and tries to get Boule to stop, but Boule pushes him off his train. Labiche falls down, gets up, and shouts that the switch is closed. Boule tells him to open it, and Labiche runs to the switch and swings it in time. The train is moving slowly as bombs explode behind it. The tower and other things in the yard are destroyed.
The train stops, and Boule gets off and looks at the train. Captain Schmidt (Jean Bouchaud)) asks what is wrong, and Boule says it is the oil line; but he does not know if he can fix it. Schmidt finds a coin he put in it.
Boule is moving an engine as Waldheim tells a German officer that the repair of his train is to get top priority. Labiche tells them that the oil line was clogged. Herren orders Boule to take off the oil caps. Boule does it and is told to empty his pants pockets. Herren finds the bent coin. Labiche tells the major it is not important and that he will have it fixed overnight. The major orders Boule taken away. Labiche goes to Waldheim and asks him to stop them from taking Boule. Labiche makes them wait and tells Waldheim that he delayed his train a few minutes, but he also saved it and drove it during an air raid at the risk of his own life. He says he is a foolish old man. Labiche promises he will get his train through for him; but Boule says it is his train, and he blames Labiche for helping them. He says he raised him, but he is no better than they are. He calls the Germans swine and spits. Waldheim motions with his head for them to go on. The German soldiers take Boule to a wall. While Labiche is appealing to Waldheim to stop them, they shoot Boule. Waldheim tells Labiche that he is holding him responsible for delivering that engine personally, and he walks away.
Labiche is working with molten metal and a file to rebuild a part. He gives orders to men and tells them to hurry up. He orders Hubert to take down the grate. In the engine he sees Didont and asks why he is there. Didont says he decided to go along as fireman. Labiche calls him and the Pesquet fools and says they could be shot like Boule. He says it will be all over in a few days and that they should leave it alone. Pesquet says he can’t leave it alone because he got caught up in something. Didont says they have made all the contacts except at Metz. He says Labiche has to call Metz because Maurice will not go along unless he talks to him. Labiche says to hell with them. He says he can’t stop them from being killed. Pesquet says they will be killed if he does not call Maurice. Herren tells Labiche to get the train ready, and he says he will have it ready by dark. He asks if he wants to risk going in daylight, and Herren orders him to deliver it. It is blocking other trains, and Waldheim gave it top priority. Herren does not care if it is shot full of holes; he orders them to move it.
Labiche, Didont, and Pesquet are in the engine moving on the rail with one car. They see a spitfire airplane, and it shoots at them. On the second pass Didont goes on top and tries to wave to them to stop; but Labiche tackles him, and they are not hit. On the third pass Labiche puts on the breaks, and they stop at the other end of a tunnel. Didont blows the whistle. Pesquet says this is his last job. Labiche says he will call Maurice when they get to Rive Reine.
The train pulls into a station, and Labiche gets off with a bicycle. Waldheim asks him if it was his idea to risk the train on a daylight run. Labiche says that was ordered by Herren. Waldheim says he admires his efficiency and asks if he has trouble with sabotage. Labiche says he is not a prophet. Waldheim says the train will get through to Germany. Labiche asks if he wants a guarantee. Waldheim wants a partial guarantee and orders Labiche to drive the engine. Labiche says he was supposed to return to Vaires, but Waldheim walks over to the other two Frenchmen and tells them to keep steam up and that they can go. Labiche says he worked all night to get the engine ready and has not slept for two nights; he will fall asleep at the controls. Waldheim orders him to leave at 7 and says he can rest until then. He orders Schmidt to take him to the hotel. Labiche asks Schmidt about his bicycle, and he tells the other two men to use that to get to Paris.
In a hotel Schmidt asks Christine (Jeanne Moreau) for a room for Labiche who tells Schmidt to pay her. He does so and orders him to rest and be ready at 7. Labiche asks her to call him at 6:45 and goes up to his room. He looks out the window and sees Pesquet with the bicycle and a German soldier with a rifle. Labiche goes out the window without being noticed by the soldier and climbs down. Christine sees him. Labiche climbs up to the top of the wall and calls to Pesquet who says there is a German in the office with Jacques and asks him to give him two minutes.
Didont is getting off the engine, but the German guard orders him to stay and use the coal pile.
Pesquet puts the bicycle by a truck, and lights the gas opening on fire and moves away. The truck explodes. During the confusion Labiche goes in the window of the office and pretends to be washing the window. Jacques (Jacques Marin) comes in with the guard, and Labiche stabs the guard with a knife. Jacques ties a cloth over his mouth while Labiche is making a phone call. Jacques gives Labiche a rope to tie his hands behind him.
Waldheim walks to the burning truck and orders the men to get back to the train.
Labiche goes out of the office and runs off.
Waldheim asks Schmidt where Labiche is, and they go to see if he is in the hotel. Labiche climbs over the wall and enters the hotel, seeing the Germans coming. They go upstairs as Christine follows them. They break down the door and do not find him. Schmidt orders them to look in the cellar. They find Labiche eating in the kitchen. Schmidt asks her how long he has been there, and she says since soup, cabbage, and potatoes. The Germans go out, and Labiche thanks her. She says she could be shot and complains about the damage to the door. He gives her 100 francs for the damage and asks how much she wants for saving his life. She says nothing, and he goes out.
German soldiers are beating Jacques as Waldheim interrogates him. Schmidt comes in and tells Waldheim that Labiche never left the hotel. Waldheim orders them to let Jacques go.
Labiche comes downstairs, and Christine offers him some coffee with no extra charge. An officer comes in and tells Labiche that the train is waiting. She tells him her name before he leaves.
Labiche gets on the engine, and Didont asks if he got through. Labiche asks Jacques on the ground if the track is clear ahead, and he says it is to Germany. Waldheim asks Labiche if he slept well, and he says like a baby. Waldheim orders Sergeant Schwartz (Donald O’Brien) to ride with him. He says the last town before Germany is St. Avold where he is to stop and let Captain Schmidt phone a report to him. Labiche says he will stop at St. Avold, and Waldheim tells him he will find Germany interesting. The train starts moving. Didont tells Labiche if they stop at St. Avold, they wil get their heads blown off.
Jacques comes into the office and makes a phone call and says it is railroad business.
The train passes through Montmirail and Chalons without stopping. The train slows down as they pass a town with fires near the track. At Verdun a German calls to Metz that the train is on time as the train passes by.
Jacques calls Metz and asks where Maurice is. He asks when he will be back and leaves a message for him to call him. Robert comes in with food and asks his uncle Jacques when he will be home. Jacques get angry at him and then apologizes.
At Metz fires are burning, and the train slows down. Didont says it is because of the air raid. Didont tells Labiche he does not want to stop at St. Avold, but Labiche asks him if he wants to go to Germany. Labiche tells Didont that Jacques will send word. The train changes tracks, and Schwartz says it is taking them south. Didont says the main track was blown up, and they have to go around the bend in the river. Labiche asks what is the next town, and Schwartz says Remilly. Labiche tells him to keep his eyes open.
They are passing through Remilly. After they have gone a man releases the sign with that name which was covering the name “Pont a Mousson.”
Jacques gets through to Maurice and tells him to call Commercy so that his wife can put some food for him on the midnight train when it stops there. He says it will stop there to unload passengers. The German asks if that was railroad business.
An officer tells Schmidt that St. Avold is the next stop.
The train stops there, and Didont asks Labiche if they are going to run. Labiche asks the sergeant if they can stretch their legs, and they get off the train; but a soldier points a rifle at them.
Schmidt gets off and says no one is to get off the train; they are only stopping for two minutes. He goes to make a phone call.
Another German with a rifle arrives and tells Labiche to tell Jacques that the cheese is on the train and to save a piece for Pierre and Raoul.
Schmidt on the phone tells Waldheim that they are in St. Avold. Schwartz asks the first soldier what it is like there, but he does not reply. Schmidt calls to them to go, and the three men get back in the engine. The train starts moving, but the lamp one of the two soldiers is holding shows that they were in Commercy.
The train passes through another town, and Schmidt says they are in Germany, but the map shows they are going away from Germany.
In the morning Jacques runs from a train as it goes off the track. Then he runs back and asks the man if he is all right. He says he is. Jacques sees Germans arriving and argues with the man about who caused the accident.
Didont asks Labiche how close they are. He says a few minutes and says if they are separated, they can meet at the old farmhouse above the river. As they pass, a man has his coat over the sign pointing to Rive Reine. Labiche has Didont take the stick while he shovels in coal. Then he uses the shovel to hit Schwartz, and they throw him off the train. Didont climbs on top and separates the engine from the cars which slow down as the engine goes on. Didont gets off the train and runs across a bridge. Labiche jumps off the engine but is shot from the train as he is crossing the bridge. He gets up and runs limping to the other side of the river.
The train crosses a bridge. The engine runs into the train that was derailed and then is hit by the cars, waking up Schmidt. Another engine arrives, and a man jumps off before it hits the cars. German soldiers chase the man and shoot him.
Waldheim, wearing pajamas under an overcoat, rides on the sidecar of a motorcycle to the scene of the accident. He orders soldiers to kill them.
Christine hears the alarm and looks out the window on her door. Labiche climbs over the wall and limps to the back door. She lets him in the kitchen and says he can’t stay there. She sees he is wounded.
Waldheim in his uniform orders Jacques and another man with blindfolds to be shot, and they are killed. He asks Pilzer when the cranes will arrive, and he says Major Herren is on his way. Waldheim orders him to get more men to work. An officer tells Waldheim he has two squads searching for Labiche, but they have not found him. He asks if he might have gone back to Paris, but Waldheim says he knows that he would stay there because of the train. He orders the town searched.
Christine brings a tray of food and clothes to Labiche in the cellar and asks how his leg is. It has been bandaged, and he says it is better. He hears German voices and asks what is going on. She says he should know because engines and cars are all over the tracks. He asks if there have been any reprisals. She says Jacques and an engineer were shot. Another thin engineer was killed trying to escape, and he says it must be Pesquet. She says there will be others. They hear noises, and she leaves him.
On the ground floor German soldiers ask her if she has seen Labiche. She says he was there yesterday. Then she mocks them by saying she sees him every day and keeps him cool in the wine cellar. They go out, and she goes back to the cellar. She asks why he came back there. She asks him to leave her alone. She knew Jacques all his life and his wife. She says men are fools, and he agrees. He says more than a hundred men were involved in stopping that train. He wonders how many will be shot. He tells her that paintings are on that train, the national heritage of France. He says it is crazy. He says it is quiet up there and starts to go. She says he will not get anywhere and advises him to wait until it is dark. She tells him to eat the food. He touches her shoulders, and she hugs him.
The crane has arrived and is lifting the engine off the tracks. Waldheim says he ordered two cranes, and the officer says it was hard to get one.
At night Christine goes outside to take garbage to a can. She says it is clear, and Labiche comes out and looks around. They hear Germans coming and hide in the garden by the wall. They embrace, and he goes.
In an old building Didont tells Labiche that they shot the station-master at Commercy. At Metz they took ten hostages and shot them; they were mostly kids. Three are dead at Chalons. He is eating bread and says that Pesquet was right about this being his last job. Labiche asks about the train, and Didont says it will be ready to go tomorrow. Labiche asks if the Allies are taking the tourist route to Paris. They hear something, and Didont throws a rifle to Labiche. Spinet says it is him with Jacques’ nephew Robert. Spinet is glad Labiche is alive and compliments him on the job. Labiche asks where the Allies are, and Spinet says they are letting the French reach Paris first as a gesture. Labiche gets angry and mentions those who died. Spinet asks what he is going to do, and Labiche shows him the plastique that Didont brought and says that tomorrow night if there are no
Allies, they will blow up the train. Spinet says London wants the train saved. Labiche asks how are they to do that. Spinet says all switching tracks and trains will be bombed, but the art train is not to be destroyed. They are ordered to mark it so that the planes can pass it up. They are to use white paint on the top of the first three cars. London does not want the paintings damaged. Labiche asks where the Allies are and says they can blow up the train. Didont says it would be too bad if it was blown up when it could be saved. Labiche says those who died to save it will never know, but Didont says they will. Spinet repeats the order to paint the first three cars with white paint, and he leaves. Labiche tells Didont that Germans are all over the place, and it is hopeless. Didont says the cars have needed paint since the war started. Labiche asks who will help him, and Robert volunteers. Labiche asks Robert what he shoots with his rifle, and he says rabbits. Labiche asks Robert how well he knows Rive Reine, and he says he lived there all his life. Labiche asks if he can get men to help, but he says they are all working on the tracks. He says he can get men at Montmirail and paint and brushes. Labiche tells him to be back an hour before dawn with men and paint, and he goes out. Didont says with luck no one will be hurt. Labiche says no one is ever hurt, just dead. Didont asks if he as ever seen those paintings, and he suggests they should look at them.
Robert is working in a restaurant at night. He climbs into the attic and on to the roof. He cuts an electric line and causes the air raid siren to sound. Waldheim sees the men stop working as lights are turned out. Labiche, Didont, Robert, and another man come out of the bushes and carry paint and a ladder to the train. They climb on top and dump white paint out and spread it with their hands. Waldheim sees someone on a roof and orders the lights turned on. They shoot the man on the roof of the building. Labiche tells them to get off the train. Didont stays to finish the job, and Labiche tells him to get off and run. Didont is shot, and Labiche kills the soldier who shot him.
In the morning the Germans have men working to try to wash the paint off the top of the cars. Herren tells Waldheim that they are hearing German artillery before they fall back. Waldheim asks when he will be finished. He says a half hour; but it does not matter because they can’t take the train out before dark. Waldheim says the Allies could be there by then. Herren says a moving train has no chance. The air raid siren sounds, and the workers take cover. Planes flying low over the train do not drop bombs. Herren asks why, and Waldheim says the paint is a signal not to bomb the train. He says it is his ticket to Germany.
Labiche places plastique under the track and connects a wire. He wraps the wire around a large rock and unrolls it as he hides in the bushes. He winds up the trigger as the train approaches. He sees men on the front of the train and blows up the track before it gets there. The train comes to a stop where the track is broken. Waldheim orders soldiers to go after him; but Herren says Labiche could blow up the track over and over again. He says he could have blown up the engine, but the hostages prevented that. He says he can have the track repaired in less than an hour. He advises him to keep Labiche away from the track for the next five miles when they will leave him behind. Waldheim decides he wants the train more than Labiche.
Labiche is running in the bushes near the track while German soldiers guard the track.
The train is backed up on to the track. Soldiers run along the track. Labiche hobbles on the mountain and sees the soldiers on the track.
Herren has new rails put in.
Labiche climbs up the mountain slope. He falls and rolls down a ways. He sees an area with no soldiers and slides down the slope. He gets to the track and breaks open a little shed. He gets a tool and unscrews what holds the rail.
The train slowly crosses the repaired part of the track. They get on the train and proceed.
Labiche unscrews several ties. German soldiers get on the train. Labiche uses a pick to bust them loose. He takes his rifle and goes into the bushes. A soldier thinks he saw him and has two men walk with him down the track. They see the train coming and stop. Herren orders the train to stop, and he gets on the front of the engine. Waldheim orders the engineer to go no more than ten miles per hour. Herren sees the loose screws and orders them to stop. The train rides over the weakened track and stops. Waldheim gets out and looks at it. Major Herren tells him that it is impossible to get the train back on the rails without a crane which is in Paris. Waldheim tells him to get the train back on the rails, but Herren says it is hopeless. Waldheim sees a convoy arrive on the road, and he orders them to unload the paintings. He goes on the road and orders them to stop the convoy. He orders an officer to get his men off the trucks, and he does so. The officer in charge rides in a jeep up to Waldheim who says he needs all of his trucks to deliver a cargo to Germany of vital importance. The officer says there is a French armored division over the hill, and he asks about his men. Waldheim says he doesn’t care, and he orders him to unload the trucks. The officer says the war is over in this sector, and he orders his men back into the trucks. Waldheim orders Herren to shoot that man. Herren goes to Waldheim and says they have lost; it is hopeless. The officer asks if they want transport, and Herren thanks him. Herren orders Schwartz to get the men into the trucks. Schwartz orders the men to put the crates of paintings down. Schwartz motions to the men with machine guns, and they shoot the hostages. Herren stops his vehicle to give Waldheim a ride, but he tells him to go on.
Waldheim is left alone with the train. On the other side of the train Labiche is walking with a rifle. He gets on the engine and turns things off. He sees the dead hostages and gets off the train. Waldheim calls to him, and Labiche turns around. Waldheim says great paintings are his prize. He says paintings don’t mean anything to Labiche, and he says Labiche stopped him by sheer luck. Waldheim calls him nothing and says the paintings are his. He says beauty belongs to those who appreciate it. He walks toward Labiche and asks if he could tell him why he did what he did. Labiche fires his automatic weapon at Waldheim who falls dead. Labiche walks on the road away from Germany.
This drama is based on a true story written by Mlle. Villard who worked to preserve the paintings by helping the French resistance. This story focuses on the last shipment; on previous shipments she alerted the resistance so that they would not destroy the works of art. The folly of war fought mostly by men is exposed and is contrasted to the refinement of art which provides lasting value that reflects its human culture.