Saturday, 13 September 2014

Trains, Trains, and Automobiles

School has started up again, and among the many different courses I have, I managed to get into one dedicated to studying the history of action movies. Our course materials make the case that action movies as we know them today really only started to come about in the 1970's, it is derived from a variety of different genres. This first week alone, we looked at the silent era, and something that I would never have even considered a sub-genre, but one which is has played a crucial role in the history of action cinema.

That is the "train chase" movie. In the silent era, trains were (and still are) hugely popular subjects for filmmakers. One of the earliest film recordings, and arguably the most famous of the moving photographs created by the Lumiere Brothers, depicted a train pulling into a station. 1903 Edwin S. Porter directed The Great Train Robbery, which was arguably also the first western film, and it does not stop there.

Action and suspense at its finest.
The "train chase" is a sub-genre that became strangely popular as the silent area progressed. As we have seen in class, it comes in a wide variety of forms, but generally the way it works is that it, as the name implies, there is a train and it is in some way chased or chasing something. A variation on this was the 1911 film The Lonedale Operator by D.W. Griffith, where instead of a direct chase, it was a group of outlaws trying to break into a train station while the engineers try to reach it on time.

This particular film is notable for the fact that it might just have the first real action heroine. While she still has to rely somewhat on the men, the female protagonist is amazingly resourceful and has to rely on herself until the guys (who are trying to reach the station in a locomotive) can get to her. She initially tries to lock herself in the station while persistently trying to send out a call for help. Even when the two bandits finally break in, she manages to keep them pinned down when she apparently pulls a gun on them, forcing them to surrender just before the male leads arrive and take them away.

Even when the silent era really took off, trains remained popular. One of the most famous examples is arguably Buster Keaton's The General where he spends the first half of the movie chasing after the Union Soldiers that stole his both girlfriend and his locomotive, before finally rescuing both and having to spend the second half running away. Though not in itself an action movie, The General contains a lot of the stunt work that could easily have inspired more action-oriented films.

The funny thing about these train chase movies is that, while perhaps not as popular today, they may just have unwittingly set the stage for something we all should be very familiar with in present-day Hollywood. You might not often see one train chasing another quite like in The General, but you do often see vehicle-based chase sequences. One of the best-known action movie conventions is of course the car chase.

We've all seen the classic car chase at some point or another. It can come in all forms, but the simplest case is that you have two cars: one with the hero and one with the bad guy. One of them ends up getting the other's attention and tries to make a run for it by hopping into their car and driving off. The pursuer does not give up without a fight, and the result is an extended sequence in which both drivers have to navigate their urban environment at high speeds. Sometimes obstacles might present themselves along the way or the participants might try to find ways to slow each other down either by shooting at each other or improvisation.

The car chase is something so popular it's practically synonymous with action, and with good reason. Done right it can lend itself to a lot of creative situations. The overall outcome of the chase will vary depending on the various factors such as whether it is the villain chasing the hero or vice versa, the environment they are in, the types of cars that are being used, how late into the movie the chase is happening. The thing is that it can lend itself to a wide variety of environments and by extension plenty of great stunts.

Now it is often known as a "car chase", but technically the same effect can be achieved with other vehicles. The Tourist had plenty of great boat chases that made use of its Venice setting. Sometimes you can mix and match different types of vehicles (Terminator 2: Judgement Day sees the heroes in a car being chased by the T-1000 in a truck). Planes can be used to create some impressive aerial stunts, and yes, even trains are not out of the question.

Even in the present day, trains continue to be popular sources of action. Tony Scott's 2010 film Unstoppable was basically a modern take on the train chase sub-genre of the silent era. This time around instead of a single locomotive or a small train, the film deals with the danger posed by a mile-long freight train (something a bit more common now) barreling down the track at increasing speed because some idiot failed to do his job correctly. The "chase" part comes from the fact that pretty much everyone is chasing the train and trying to find some way to stop it, but the climax sees Chris Pine and Denzel Washington in hot pursuit using their own locomotive and figuring out a plan to use it to stop the train.

So what is it with trains in these movies? why is it that even today trains continue to be a great source of tension? Well, in the early 20th century, they were still a fairly new piece of equipment (it's not too far-fetched that some viewers of The Great Train Robbery still had memories of the first railroads coming through their hometowns). Even today, there is still a certain amount of risk to be found around railroads under normal circumstances.

In addition to that, let's face it, steam locomotives are pretty impressive-looking machines, so having one alone is great for visual spectacle, but the way they are designed also lends itself to a variety of stunts. In The General, Buster Keaton does a whole bunch of crazy things on his engine, probably getting at least one scene on each part (he even rides on the valve gear in one early scene). Steam locomotives are practically built to be climbed over, why do you think they're such a common choice for playgrounds?

Part of it could also have to do with the general speed of trains. After all, you don't normally see a lot of action happening on static trains. They are usually moving when things are going down (Thomas and the Magic Railroad doesn't count) and often the situations require people to climb around on the outside. While climbing around on a static train might not be the greatest experience, imagine being on one that's moving at full speed. If the action is on the outside of the train (which often it is), then there are a variety of ways you could fall off.

Let's say for the sake of argument that you have to climb along the roof of the train (which happens in Unstoppable and the 1979 The Great Train Robbery, among other films). On a static train, it might not be so bad, but while its moving, and you are balancing on a roof that wasn't designed to be stood on, it is going to be very hard to stay on. You do not want to fall off of a moving train (even if you're not hurt by the fall, you won't exactly be able to get back onto the train).

Whatever the reasons, cinema seems to have a strange fascination for the railroad. Trains have been a part of film history right from the beginning, and they still continue to play into today's action films. There seems to be something about the tension that comes from running into problems aboard a moving train that draws the attention of filmmakers from the silent era to the present. Train robberies, train chases, or just about any other problem that could possibly warrant the presence of a train are subjects that have always been popular and which will likely continue to be so as long as there is a railroad industry.


  1. Excellent article, as usual. I would want to also make mention of the Polar Express. Even though it was all CGI, and the characters themselves lacked something, there was a definite love affair with the size, mechanics and physics of a moving steam train, best illustrated, in my opinion, by the lost cotter pin scene.

    1. I've never actually seen The Polar Express. I think that might be one of the only cases where I've read the book without ever seeing the movie.

  2. Nice write up. The General is a brilliant piece of film making. Most, if not all of the stunts had to be done in one take because they only had one train. And yeah, trains are another reason to see Skyfall.

    1. Buster Keaton was apparently a very dedicated man, considering he did all his own stunts. My professor brought up one story about an incident where he actually broke his neck while shooting one of his movies, and he was so committed to the project the crew didn't find out until something like 20 years later.

  3. Great article and love anything to do with trains especially chases. Buster broke his neck when a water spout hit him (and Marion Mack I think). he left with a slight headache. When he was starting at MGM, he had to go for mandatory medical and the Dr did a routine x-ray and found that he broke his neck. Buster could only assumer it was from that film a few years back when he was on top of that train and the water hit him. It was talked about on the superb documentary "Hollywood" narrated by James Mason. It was also in a the great documentary on Buster Keaton and Buster talked about it himself in a making of film about "The Railrodder" a Canadian film starring Buster Keaton riding the rails through Canada- A fun film!