La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails) (1946)
Director: Renť Clťment.
Starring: Marcel Barnault (Barnault), Jean Clarieux (Lampin), Jean Daurand (Cheminot), Jacques Desagneaux (Athos), FranÁois Joux (Cheminot), Pierre Latour (Cheminot), Tony Laurent (Camargue), Robert Le Ray (Chef de gare), Pierre Lozach (Cheminot), Pierre Mindaist (Cheminot), Lťon Paulťon (Chef de gare St-Andrť), Fernand Rauzťna (Cheminot), Redon (Mecanicien), Michel Salina (Allemand).
railway workers form part of the French Resistance sabotaging the Nazi occupation
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
In June 1940, smashing the nationís unity, dispersing families and friends, blocking equipment and supplies inside the dividing-line, the Germans split France in two: on one side, the occupied zone. On the other, the alleged free zone. Between the two zones, a bond, still solid, but tightly supervised by the enemy. At all costs, France must maintain her home unity and her connections with the outer world. The barrier set up by the enemy has to be passed by the mail and by the men. Take care of that, first phase of their resistance. Then, they pluck up courage and, little by little, under terror, during a four-year struggle, they create a redoubtable arm. And on the landing-day, this arm will strongly help in disorganizing the traffic and beating the Germans in the battle of liberation.
A train pulls into a station. German soldiers are waiting for it. The people on the train will have to show their identity papers and permits for the authorities of occupation. A woman with her little girl are taken off the train.
Four men jump out of a locomotive and run across the railway tracks. A man inside a train picks up something hidden under a seat cushion. Another man takes out papers from underneath the train. A man hides in a small compartment for dogs.
Men are helped down into a water container for a locomotive. The locomotive pulls forward to get water. The Germans check it out. The man managing the water pours some into the tank. One of the men inside starts to freak out, but is silenced by the others. The waterman does not fill the tank all the way up.
The trains are regulated at the office. At that time the trains were mostly T.C.O. ("Transports in Course of Operation".) A German officer orders the making up of a set of 50 wagons. The railwaymen check out each of the 50 wagons. If they see something wrong they have the wagon pulled out of the set. The control room is directly connected with every station of the area. It shows in advance the run of every train. The Germans use undecipherable codes easily decoded by the railroadmen. The men put grains of sand into the coding machine.
Four men of the resistance meet in a cafť. The men have code names: one is Athos. Another is Camargue. They play cards while they talk about resistance business.
In a secret meeting place men gather to consider the hundreds of ways to harass the Germans. One man keeps the wagons in France by switching labels explaining where a train is headed. Another incises the air brake hoses. Still another drains the trains of fuel.
A man has made a bomb. He explains how it is to be attached to a surface using its two magnets. A railwayman arrives to tell the men to hide. The Krauts are coming! The fellows hide in the pits, while another turns on an air raid siren.
A man plants a bomb on the side of a locomotive. It explodes. The Germans have signs up warning against sabotage. Since that didnít work very well, they start making threats. And there are constant checks of the men. The men are gathered together to hear threats against the saboteurs. A worker named Louis is used as a translator from German to French.
That night ten German trains will leave. But small explosions go off affecting each of the ten trains. As retribution, the Germans grab six workers as hostages. A German soldier prepares to shoot a saboteur caught red handed, but the fellowís lookout shoots the soldier. The two men gets shovels to dig space in the coal to stick in the German rifle of the dead man.
A firing squad shoots the six railwaymen one by one. One of the saboteurs from the cafť brings a message for a telegrapher to forward. It is the list of the last tonnages sent to Germany in two weeks. The British under a guise of a program called "Frenchmen speak to Frenchmen" sends a series of messages. Most donít mean anything, but the French have to wait for that one message that is a message that announces the invasion of France by the Allies. The important sentence the men hear is: "The cat is out of the bag." The guy from the cafť runs to tells others in the resistance that the Allies have landed.
The Germans order twelve trains to the western front. The resistance plots to blow up a key bridge to hinder the movement of German troops. The order for a convoy of twelves trains is delivered to the resistance men at their work. The name of the convoy is "Apfelkein". It means pips of apples.
The Germans load up a train. A telephone call comes in saying that the bridge has been blown up. The resistance man relays the message and the German supervisor says: "Oh, always the same!" Convoy S.1504 moves through the main station at 3:45 p.m. loaded with weapons. Loome Station reports in a blown up track.
One of the resistance men hops on a motorcycle and takes off to go to another railway station. He tells Leroux that the convoy must not pass through his station. Leroux will get a retired railway engineer named Jules to fire up one of the locomotives. His wife tells the men that her is not going, but Jules says he will do it.
The resistance fellow from the main station and another railway man loosen some track. The locomotive pushes part of a train to derail on the loose tracks. Then the locomotive is sent to crash into the wreckage. Then Leroux calls in to report the damage to the resistance man who has already returned to his work post at the main station.
A high ranking German officer reports that only three trains out of seven have arrived. They telephone to ask what happened to the Apfelkein convoy? The fellow calls the main station to ask the German in charge of the trains what has happened to the trains? He is told he will be held personally responsible if the trains donít reach their destinations. The fellow calls for a huge crane to lift the wreckage off the tracks at the other station. But the man on the other end of the line says they donít have a locomotive with which to push the crane to the other station. They only have an emergency train. The man in charge insists they use it and the other fellow has to agree.
The 30 ton crane reaches the wreck. A German asks how long it will take and the Frenchman says three hours. A saboteur takes away a chain attaching the crane to the track. He takes a chain link and saws it through with a hack saw. He then puts everything back in place. When the crane tries to hoist a wagon, the crane tips over. The German accuses the Frenchman of sabotage, but the accused only insists that now they need a 50 ton crane to move the 30 ton crane.
The convoy train is stranded. The troops lay or sit along the railroad embankment waiting for the train to move. The 50 ton crane arrives. The crane man tells the German that it will take him until tomorrow night to clear the tracks
The mess is cleaned up pretty quickly and the train is moved. A saboteur curses that the tracks are cleared and that the convoy may pass through the station after all. He takes off to get a team to undo the rails in another section of the track. The men undo the tracks and then hide in the nearby bushes. On the locomotive a man yells for the engineer to halt the crane train. The train stops in time. But the resistance men run up and capture the Germans checking out the rails. The resistance takes over the locomotive. One man starts backing up the train and then jumps out.
Heading backwards the crane train speeds through the last train station it had past earlier. A warning comes into the main station that there is a work crew of some 35 men at the yard and they canít warn them by phone. The resistance men decide to phone Post 7 to half-open the switch. That will derail the train before it reaches the 35 workmen. Mission accomplished, but it doesnít stop the train.
Post 7 calls into the main station. The fellow reports what happened and says only the heel of the switch is broken. The upcoming hill will stop it, but thatís after going through the yard and the workmen. Fortunately, the work supervisor sees the crane train coming and is able to switch the train to another track.
The train really slows down until it just stops. A shepherd boy looks into the locomotive cabin to see no engineer there. He gets spooked and chases his sheep away from the train tracks. The mian station learns that the 1504 train passed at 9:35 p.m.
The uprooted track is still there. But the Germans will probably fix it. So the resistance decides that they have to blow up the first train, the armored train, in the very closely packed convoy.
The armored train followed by train 1504 has passed through Brisson Station. The men take up their positions. The train comes slowly by. It stops to fix the railway track. The resistance opens fire on the train.
A machine gunner starts firing back, but his assistant is hit and killed and then he himself is hit. The resistance has a bazooka to hit the armored sections of the train. German artillery is called and they open up. The bazooka team is hit and wiped out. But two resistance fighters retrieve the bazooka. The French start taking heavy casualties. They have to run for their lives but the machine guns mow down a lot of them.
The Germans start coming off the train. A tank is also released and heads off into the woods after the resistance fighters. The tank just misses running over a Frenchman in hiding. Meanwhile the workers start repairing the tracks.
The chief engineer arrives at the main station, but it turns out heís with the resistance too. So the Germans wonít get any help from his services. The decision is made to start acting on a larger scale. So they decide to derail the first train after the armored train. "The Krauts will never think weíll dare it."
The man from the cafť gets to the locomotive engineer who will take over and drive that first train after the armored train. He is told that the battle is raging in Normandy and the reinforcements mustnít get there. The engineer is also told the action will happen at kilometer 212. The engineer gets in the cabin and heads out. He and his assistant will have to jump out before reaching kilometer 212.
The engineer tells his assistant to jump from the train. Then the engineer jumps. Meanwhile explosives are set on the railway tracks. The explosion goes off just before the train arrives at the spot. The train derails in an impressive sight, heading downhill at a tremendous rate.
The resistance people call Bellay substation to have them switch off the current. The electric trains carrying the Germans shut down. But Frenchmen call into the main station to say the Germans are threatening to shoot them. So the decision is made to turn the current back on. They will get them farther along the line.
There is a failure of the lines later and so the Germans demand that steam locomotives be used. But the resistance orders that the fuel for the locomotives be emptied out. The order is carried out. The resistance also calls the Allies as to the location of the stranded troop trains. Allied airplanes attack the entire section reported to them. The trains take a beating with huge fires finishing the job.
The railway men gather around a radio to listen to the incoming news. "The Clercís Bridgeís blown up. Tunnel choked up, track broken. Depot taken by the Maquisards. Every road blocked. The Krauts are trapped. 50 prisoners. A German convoy is wrecked. That convoy was bombed by the R.A.F. They bolt!"
Many German soldiers have to take horse and wagon now. False information is leaked. The Germans are told that the Americans are at Sarray. One German train turns back upon hearing the news. The resistance starts taking German prisoners.
The first liberated trains start running filled with very happy French people. They wave at the track repairmen and the repairmen wave back.
Pretty good movie. It is very different from most of the historical movies. It doesn't really have a clear cut hero and no heroine at all. There is no love story. You don't even get to know any of the characters. It's an ensemble cast with no one actor dominating the movie. But the movie still works. That's because of the ingenious ways in which the French resistance acted to harass the Germans and their troop trains. I kept thinking to myself, now that was clever. The resistance helped prevent many German troops and equipment from ever reaching Normandy to help stop the D-Day invasion. The four years of experience with the Germans the French resistance had came in handy, because they certainly were organized in their resistance efforts.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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