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Chris Hicks: Movies with real trains are on the right track

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 5:16 p.m. MDT

Among the bonus features is a mini-documentary explaining how this effect was achieved, and it turns out that it’s all a set, albeit a very convincing one. The ground was plowed by a front-loader and the newly constructed, painted and dirtied-up shells of an engine and its cars were placed into the dug-up earth.

About the same time I was watching this show, I also received an old Western making its DVD and Blu-ray debut, “Denver & Rio Grande” (1952). This is a color B-movie about the construction of a portion of the railroad through the Rocky Mountains, and the story is a fairly ordinary by-the-numbers yarn. But it’s also fast-paced and performed well by a cast of character actors recognizable to baby boomers.

Still, “Denver & Rio Grande” would probably be lumped in with dozens of other 1950s Westerns as nothing special except for a couple of things that make it stand out.

First, it’s a fairly early color movie made at a time when black-and-white was still the standard, and having been shot on location in Colorado, the film shows off some breathtaking vistas captured in gorgeous Technicolor, particularly of trains riding the rails on narrow passages through the mountains. All of which is particularly vivid in the Blu-ray edition.

Second, there’s a two-train collision toward the end, and it’s real! The filmmakers had the cooperation of the Denver & Rio Grande railway line in 1952 and it was discovered that the company had two steam locomotives ready for the scrap heap. So, for the film’s climax, the two engines were positioned on one track, aimed at each other, set at high speed and photographed as they rammed into each other head on. No retakes for this shot.

It’s pretty dazzling and got me thinking about how other train crashes have been achieved on film.

Some, of course, are very obviously done with models, such as the first movie train crash I ever saw, the wreck at the end of Cecil B. DeMille’s circus yarn “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952). But it’s still pretty good. Even better is DeMille’s 1939 epic about the first transcontinental railroad, “Union Pacific,” which boasts not one but two train wrecks.

Not that the special effects look any less phony with 21st century movie magic. The vampire Western “Priest” (2011) features an exciting train wreck, though it’s obviously computer animation, as is the wild train crash at the beginning of the sci-fi horror thriller “Super 8” (2011).

But along with “Denver & Rio Grande,” there are other films that cracked up real trains for their eye-popping crash sequences, including two that stand out: The train that falls into a ravine when a burning bridge collapses beneath it in Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedy “The General” (1926) and the train that rams into a bus just as Harrison Ford leaps out of the vehicle’s broken window in the modern classic, “The Fugitive” (1993).

“The General” was shot on location in Oregon, and during the silent era this stunt was the most expensive ever. The train that bowed as it fell belly first, along with the collapsing bridge, into the river below, was never cleaned up after filming and remained in the ravine until World War II, at which time it was recycled for scrap metal to assist the war effort.

Similarly, wreckage of “The Fugitive” train was also left at its site in North Carolina and remains a tourist attraction today for those who take a train ride through Dillsboro (but it is, reportedly, no longer visible from the road due to overgrowth).

Three more movies that feature impressive train crashes using real trains are “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), “The Train” (1964) and “Runaway Train” (1985).

If you watch any of these, you’ll quickly see how amped-up movie realism becomes with an actual train as opposed to a fake stand-in. The same way filming on location against real landscapes beats filming on a studio set against a green screen every time.

With all due respect to George Lucas and James Cameron, replicating the world in a computer is a poor substitute for filming the real deal.

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