I was looking through my blog feed when I stumbled across a Gif posted by my friend Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently, another movie blog that specializes almost exclusively in silent films. This may not be my strongest area of expertise, but I was interested in what she had to say. It seems a lot of people were led to her blog through search tags referring to women being tied to railroad tracks. This is something of an infamous cliche, though I had always understood it to be something more common in serials.
It turns out even then it was extremely rare, and nowhere near as sexist as people make it out to be. Fritzi herself did a whole video in which she explained in detail the origins of the misconception that women were often tied to railroad tracks in silent movies. To put it simply, critics who make this claim are usually citing one of two films, Teddy At the Throttle or Barry Oakfield's Race for Life. Both films were actually comedies that were intended as a parody of an old idea that was considered a tired cliché even then. In fact, as far as women are to be concerned, the silent era is actually a lot more progressive than people give it credit for.
For one thing, it seems that for the few cases of the "tied to the railroad track" cliché actually happening, it was not exclusively women waiting to be rescued by men. In fact, the play from which this cliché is believed to originate, Under the Gaslight, actually had a male victim who needed to be rescued by a woman. Adding to that is that Teddy At the Throttle has a female victim who ultimately has to save herself. So in actuality there are very few instances of people being tied to the tracks actually happened, and the few cases that do exist have not in fact been gender-exclusive, nor do the female victims always require rescuing by a man.
To be fair, I'm not even sure how practical a method it would be to dispose of someone. In order to do it, you would first have to find an isolated bit of track somewhere nobody would see you, plus you would have to get the rope or chains under the railroad ties (if you just tie the person up, they can simply roll off the track as soon as you leave). On top of that, trains are fast, so you wouldn't be able to predict when a train is coming. Supposing a train approaches before you have finished tying your victim down? You would have very little time to get out of the way plus it would give your victim an opportunity to escape. Even for the diabolical masterminds that did not in fact do this kind of thing, it would not be a very effective method.
Action heroines were actually a lot more common in the silent period than one would expect. Fritzi herself has cited several. The original Perils of Pauline cast the title character as a free-spirited adventurer, and to be fair the old serials liked to put everyone in danger regardless of gender. It was all part of the strategy to keep viewers coming back, the idea being to end each instalment with the hero or heroine in some sort of dangerous situation that seems impossible to survive. Audiences would have to come back to see the next part to find out how they get out of their current predicament. This is actually where the term "cliffhanger" originated, as a popular choice for ending serial instalments was to have the hero literally hanging over a cliff.
In that film, it is a woman who takes over as the telegraph operator when her father is ill, and then takes action when two outlaws arrive at her station. We do see the male lead rushing to the rescue, but the heroine has to think on her own long before he arrives. Instead of sitting around waiting to be rescued, she does everything she can to call for help and then proceeds to hold the two outlaws at gunpoint (or so it seems). By the time her lover finally arrives to rescue her, she has everything under control, and all he has to do is take them away.
So why is this idea of the woman tied to the tracks so popular? It is likely a combination of different things, but I have a theory of my own. You see, there were very few movies at the time that actually had a person getting tied down to the tracks, but there were plenty of movies that prominently featured trains. Many of these films about trains involved chases and a series of dangerous situations experienced by the main characters. It became a popular genre at the time, known as the Train-Chase film. Many will not recognise such a genre, as it faded out of popularity near the end of the silent era. While it has re-emerged on occasion, with movies such as Tony Scott's Unstoppable presenting a modern interpretation, the train-chase movie never experienced a full revival.
Train-chase movies were a huge part of silent era-Hollywood. In many ways they were an early precedent for the modern action film. The genre goes back as early as Edwin S. Porter with The Great Train Robbery and continues through the 20's. The Lonedale Operator also followed the pattern of a train-chase movie that puts the heroine into peril. To get a good look at the role of the train-chase movies, we should look at one of Buster Keaton's most famous features, The General.
The General was a movie that took place almost entirely on a single locomotive (well, technically two, but the focus is on one at a time), and had no shortage of dangerous situations for its main character. Scenes like the moment when Keaton tries to fire a cannon at the train he is chasing only for it to fall and almost hit him create tension, as well as a comedic effect when Keaton runs into trouble evading the unexpected threat and survives by accident (his train happens to run around a bend, allowing the cannon to hit the enemy he originally intended to fire at).
Buster Keaton was not alone in his perils during this adventure. There was also a romantic sub-plot involving his lover Annabelle Lee, and it is her being kidnapped by the Union that sets the story in motion. Buster Keaton's objective is of course to rescue his girlfriend and his engine. However, it is worth noting that the "rescue the kidnapped girlfriend" plot only makes up half the movie. In the first act, Annabelle is indeed a distressed damsel in need of rescuing, but then we get to the second half which inverts the setup of the first.
While The General begins with the male lead, Johnny Clay pursuing his stolen lover, he manages to rescue her around the middle point, during which time he also overhears the Union's attack plans. The rest of the movie turns everything around, with both now running away from the Union and trying to get back to their own lines and relay the information they have obtained. At this point, Annabelle stops being the damsel in distress, and instead the dynamic becomes one of co-operation. Both Johnny and Annabelle face their share of perils in this second half, and have to work together in order to solve each problem.
Looking at the information available, it quickly becomes clear that while there were not a lot of films or serials that actually had women being tied to railroad tracks, there were plenty that put characters both male and female into dangerous situations that often involved trains. There was indeed a great deal of variety in precisely what situations were faced in each film, and being tied to the tracks seems to fit right into the many possibilities.
I suspect this is in large part where the misconception that silent movies often did it comes from. Audiences who may have been influenced by the train-chase movies but who do not understand the silent era enough to understand how they worked associate situations like a woman being tied to the tracks with the types of dangers that were actually faced by many silent heroes and heroines. Men and women were both victims of these situations, and in fact women rescued men just as much as the other way around.
Fritzi had a pretty suitable analogy for people who make the misconception that all silent films involved women being tied to railroad tracks, but I'll present my own, It is very much like a modern critic watching Dirty Harry and using it to claim that all 70's action movies were about rogue cops. While urban vigilante films were popular in the 1970's, many of them centred on civilians, and they were not the only form of action movie that was known at the time. For instance, some filmmakers were also making big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno.
I will not pretend I wasn't surprised to find out how rare the "women tied to the railroad track" cliché actually was in silent film, and I also won't claim to be an expert in the field. Out of the two of us Fritzi is definitely far more qualified to be discussing silent film than I am (she would have to be, otherwise her blog dedicated to silent cinema would not have gotten very far), but I thought it was worth sharing my thoughts on the matter. One would expect that due to the social standards of the time silent film would have been very predominantly male, and at first glance it seems to make sense that there would be a lot of "damsel in distress" movies, but it turns out that is not the case. Perhaps the silent era was a lot more progressive in its treatment of women than modern viewers realise.