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

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

"Denver & Rio Grande" (1952) crashed two real trains head-on for its climax, as depicted at the top of this poster.

Paramount Pictures

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What makes trains so cinematically fascinating?

For me, it’s probably a reversion to my childhood when I had a Lionel train set and would watch it go around the track on the floor of my tiny bedroom for hours (I think my parents bought it as an incentive to keep my clothes off the floor.) And sometimes I’d make it go fast enough to jump the track. (What would Freud make of that?)

In the movies, trains always seem so much more inherently interesting than airline travel or road trips by car. Such as the railroad travel that figures so prominently in four of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films, “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “North By Northwest” (1959), and trains are just as pivotal in two of the most popular comic riffs on Hitchcock, “Silver Streak” (1976) and “Throw Momma From the Train” (1987).

Locomotives also provide a lot of action in the classic film noir “The Narrow Margin” (1952, remade in 1990 with Gene Hackman), Disney’s “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956, based on the same Civil War account used by Buster Keaton for “The General”), the Cinerama Western “How the West Was Won” (1962), the Depression-era melodrama “Emperor of the North” (1973), Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), the New York subway thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974, remade with Denzel Washington in 2009), the Charles Bronson Western “Breakheart Pass” (1976), the Sean Connery period caper “The Great Train Robbery” (1978) and Steven Seagal’s “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (1995), among many others.

And even more than the clickety-clack of the railroad engines and cars that speed along the tracks or the confined spaces they provide or the chugging of a steam engine or the roar of a bullet train, there’s nothing quite like a spectacularly photographed train crash.

In real life, of course, a train that has jumped its tracks or been involved in some other kind of accident is one of the worst, most helpless kinds of tragedy. We’ve even adopted it into the vernacular. When something horrible that seems insurmountable occurs in our lives, or the lives of others, we refer to it as a “train wreck.” A person may also be referred to as a “train wreck,” if he or she seems to be an emotional mess, a metaphorical mass of twisted metal and almost irretrievable loss.

Yet, in a movie, there’s a strange fascination with a literal train wreck, especially when it’s staged in an especially sensational way.

There’s apparently going to be an underground train crash of some kind in the new James Bond movie, “Skyfall,” judging from a snippet in the trailer. And rumor has it there’s a train wreck in the new Johnny Depp version of “The Lone Ranger,” to be released next year.

In the very dark post-Civil War revenge yarn “Hell on Wheels,” an AMC cable series whose 10-episode first season was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, Episode 8, appropriately titled “Derailed,” depicts a train that has been sabotaged by a Cheyenne tribe threatened by the arrival of the “iron horse” on their land.

We don’t see the crash, only the aftermath, but it’s presented in a compelling way as the head of a company that is laying track for the first transcontinental railway returns from a trip to Chicago. When his train makes an unscheduled stop, he leaves his coach and walks toward the crash site as the camera slowly reveals from his viewpoint that an engine and several cars have left the track and plowed a furrow into the ground. There are bodies and debris all over and steam is rising from the engine, followed shortly by an explosion.

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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