Film Review: Night Train to Munich

The Germans are coming, the Germans are coming!

Night Train to Munich occupies a fascinating time period not just in terms of cinema, but with respect to human history. Made in England in 1940 and released the same year, it reflected the reality of the world at war. Under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, Germany had already invaded and occupied Poland, and in response, Great Britain and France had declared war on the Nazi state.

Those might seem like strange circumstances in which to make a war movie—with the conflict far from over and its outcome in doubt. But during World War II, England—and later, the United States—would produce quite a few cinematic endeavors set within the war. Many of those efforts functioned as propaganda films, dispensing information to the masses and attempting to rally citizens to the cause. Many, including such fare as Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Air Force (1943), and Wake Island (1942), succeeded primarily on the basis of stirring patriotic emotions in their audiences. Other films, including 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), reached beyond that basic mission and stood on their own merits as valuable, artistic productions. A select few, such as Casablanca (1942) and Mrs. Miniver (1942), have endured as classics.

Night Train to Munich certainly possesses its own overtones of propaganda. The film decries Nazi Germany as a villainous adversary while also extolling England’s virtues. At the same time, a member of the Gestapo is depicted as a handsome, erudite patriot—duplicitous, yes, but all in the name of defending home and hearth. On the other hand, a pair of British travelers, doubtless intended as comic relief, make their way through Germany and come off as oafish, to the point of jeopardizing the critical life-or-death mission of the film’s heroes. More than that, the two men—Charters and Caldicott, portrayed ably, if perhaps inappropriately, by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, respectively—represent a sort of mid-century English reserve that makes them seem less staunchly proper and more stubbornly benighted. The characters feel out of place in the film when they’re first introduced, but are easily dismissed as humor that doesn’t quite pan out—until they appear again, and again, and again. They’re likable enough, and even occasionally compel a rueful half-smile, but they don’t quite seem to belong in a story that, while often droll, more or less treats the subject matter as serious.

It is worth spending a moment to examine the decision to include Charters and Caldicott in the film. Both characters, played by the same two actors, first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), the script of which had been written by the same screenwriters of Night Train to Munich. The choice to have Radford and Wayne reprise their cricket-obsessed characters might have been the result of a simple creative impulse for continuity, but it also might have served a larger purpose. Charters and Caldicott, in their mix of affability and incognizance, do a passing job of reflecting British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s fecklessness in appeasing Germany when he signed the Munich Agreement, conceding the Nazi state’s annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.

The film itself begins in September 1938, with the Anschluss, and leads up to England’s declaration of war when Germany invades Poland a year later. The story largely revolves around Great Britain’s desire to ensure that Czech scientist Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), the inventor of a strategically important armor plating, does not fall into the clutches of the Nazis. Bomasch has an adult daughter, Anna, played with appeal and a seriousness of purpose by Margaret Lockwood. In the role of Dickie Randall, an English intelligence officer, Rex Harrison delivers a winning performance unblemished by the mannered presentation that would mark his later roles—even those in which he succeeded, such as in his Oscar-winning turn as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. In Night Train to Munich, Harrison’s spy shows a keen mind, resourcefulness, and considerable charm, along with a healthy dose of dry wit presaging Sean Connery’s James Bond by more than a couple of decades. The main cast is rounded out by Paul Henreid (billed as Paul von Hernried), whose Karl Marsen functions convincingly as both dashing love interest and formidable antagonist. Carol Reed directs with confidence, on location and on set. The film moves engagingly forward across Europe—from Czechoslovakia to England, from Germany to Switzerland, culminating in a clever climax set in the Alps aboard a téléphérique.

Night Train to Munich may feel in part dated, especially in its use of miniatures and green screens in some sequences. But it also features real locations and German military footage of the day, lending the film a certain heft. It is also sobering to see two of the characters in a concentration camp—not because of the horror of such an occurrence, which has become familiar (though no less monstrous), but because of the timing of the film’s production. Originally premiering in August 1940, Night Train to Munich antedated the United States’ entry into World War II by sixteen months. It is not uncommon for Americans to think of the Nazi camps as developing in the middle of the war, or even later in the fighting. Any audience member with that impression is roundly disabused of such a notion.

It could be argued that Night Train to Munich doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Is it a propaganda film? A war movie? Spy thriller? Love story? Chase-filled action-adventure movie? Some of the film’s lobby cards even hinted at it being a comedy. However it’s described, director Carol Reed fuses its disparate qualities into a solid and coherent film, enjoyable in the twenty-first century, but particularly notable for the timing of its production back in 1940.

***⅜ (out of *****)

©2017 David R. George III

1940 • 1 Hour, 35 Minutes
Twentieth Century-Fox Productions

• Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henried

Written by
• Sydney Gilliat and Frank Launder (screenplay)
• Gordon Wellesley (original story)

Directed bY
• Carol Reed

1940 Academy Award Nominations (1)
• Best Writing, Original Story (lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan)