Bright Lights Film Journal

La Bete Humaine: Runaway Train

“The train is a symbol for whatever you want it to be,” the film’s director, Andrei Konchalovsky, explains. “It can be viewed as a prison because they can’t get out of it, or considered as freedom because they escaped from prison on it, or considered as our civilization running out of control because no-one can stop it.”

Where would movies be without trains? The birth of the former, dated, for the sake of convenience, at December 28, 1895, in the Grand Café in Paris, was followed, only a few short weeks later, by the first screen appearance of the latter, the flickering arrival of which, depending on whom you talk to, may or may not have frightened early viewers into scurrying for the aisles.1 Historians who accept this story as fact most often use it as an object lesson in the power of cinema over the human imagination, whereas I see it more as an object lesson in the power of the train. Is it just a coincidence that the experiences of movie-going and train travel are so similar? Both have a set beginning and end, both take you to distant realms, yet have a fixed and unalterable course, and both are intensely individual experiences — allowing for observation, thought, and dreaminess — carried out in a public space. Stage a movie on a train, therefore, and you give your narrative not only direction and momentum but a sympathetic audience, as well. And then, of course, there’s so much to do on trains. They’re big enough to hide on, as in The Narrow Margin (1952), or to hide someone else on, as in The Lady Vanishes (1938), but small enough to bar escape should somebody come looking for you, as in The 39 Steps (1935). They can be tools for good, as in The Train (1964), or ill, as in Night Train to Munich (1940). Getting off them is notoriously difficult, as shown in Silver Streak (1976) but so is getting back on: ditto. They are, in short, the ideal vehicle for a movie plot: fast, sleek, dangerous, both opulent and mechanical, the conveyance of choice for artists as disparate as Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, and Buster Keaton, the last of whom once rode the connecting rods between wheels as nonchalantly as a though he were sitting on a park bench.

Since the decline of the railroad, American filmmakers have had to travel further afield to work trains into their narratives. Wes Anderson was forced all the way to India to find a plausible excuse for a rail trip in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and in Unstoppable (2010) Denzel Washington and Chris Pine went even farther than that, to the remote corners of probability. This, of course, is dispiriting news for aficionados of the genre. Despite a recent flurry of activity — The Polar Express (2004), Transsiberian (2008), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) — the last thirty years have been a mostly stagnant period for the iron horse. At least, that is, with one crucial exception. When I think of the train movie at its glorious peak, at its most thrilling and wondrous, I think not of the velveteen sumptuousness of Shanghai Express (1932), nor the sooty realism of La Bete Humaine (1938) — though in a pinch they’ll certainly do — but of a little-known masterpiece from the mid-1980s called Runaway Train (1985).

The story takes place in Alaska, during the dead of winter. Jon Voight plays Manny, a safecracker serving time in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. Revered by the other inmates and renowned for his multiple escape attempts, he has spent the last three years locked in solitary confinement by his nemesis, Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), a petty tyrant of the same breed as Kurtz and Ahab, ruling over the prison as he would his own personal fiefdom. When a court order forces Ranken to release Manny from his cell, Manny makes his break, stealing away in a laundry cart pushed by Buck (Eric Roberts), a none-too-bright young convict who, overjoyed by the opportunity to join his idol, decides to tag along. After crawling through a sewer, braving the rapids of a freezing river, and trudging across a frozen wasteland, they stagger into a rail yard and hop a freight train, hoping to flee the state as fast as possible. As things turn out, this may be faster than they imagined, for, unbeknownst to the pair, the engineer has dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving the train unmanned and barreling at high-speed through the arctic wilderness. From here, the plot splits in three: on one side, we have the prisoners, joined by a lone rail worker, Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), desperately fighting to reach the lead locomotive; on the other, the railway dispatchers, struggling, with increasing futility, to clear the tracks before its path; and on the third, Ranken, hell-bent on recovering his prisoners whatever the cost.

Needless to say, this is a far cry from the breezy thrills of The Great Escape (1963), not to mention the soaring pathos of The Shawshank Redmption (1994). Filmed under constantly leaden skies, with howling winds and snowdrifts as far as the eye can see, the movie makes Nanook of the North (1922) look like The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The film feels cold. Watch it on a blistering afternoon in July, and you’ll feel cold. Such boreal conditions permeate not just the setting but the hearts of the protagonists, as well. The movie takes as its epigraph a line from Richard lll — two lines, actually, combined into one — spoken between Lady Anne and Richard. “No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity,” Anne scolds the scheming hunchback, to which Richard, unfazed, replies: “But I know none, and therefore am no beast.” It’s a cunning distinction, counting both as a clever riposte and a brutally honest admission, and one that could easily have been written specifically for Manny, a man of beastly parts if ever there was one. When we first encounter him, he is literally caged in the dark, confined to a cell with the doors welded shut, and in our last impression of him from that scene all we can see are his eyes and the glint of his metal tooth in the dark. Indeed, he’s more teeth than talk, with a vicious snarl and a rather hideous laugh. It’s a daring performance: impassioned, larger than life, yet seeking little sympathy. In his early roles, Voight often seemed hampered by his own good looks; that doughy face and flaxen hair made him ideal for playing yokels (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) or earnest, mild-mannered types (Deliverance, 1972), but undoubtedly hurt his chances at getting more edgy parts like Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle. By the mid-eighties, though, time had sanded away the baby fat. His cheeks creased and reddened, the youthful beefcake gained menace to go with his lumberjack’s physique. He towers over Roberts like a tree, his heft and poise making the younger man seem slight and squirrely by comparison. Voight’s great accomplishment, though, is to make Manny a knowing monster, like Richard intelligent enough to observe himself with some contempt but unwilling to change his own nature. His diatribe to Buck on the possibilities available to an ex-con (“You’re gonna get a little job, some job a convict can get, like scraping off trays in a cafeteria or cleaning out toilets…”) is both a masterpiece of fury and a pitiless look in the mirror. “Could you do that kind of shit?” Buck derisively asks, too proud to consider it himself. “I wish I could,” Manny whispers regretfully. “I wish I could.” Yet, when provoked, he turns on Buck and beats him with a ferocity that would have shocked John Webster. “You’re an animal!” Sara admonishes him, to which Manny, who has seen his fair share of animals, has a simple Richard-like reply: “No, worse: human.”

Yet, as we all know, every great battle must have not just a strong protagonist but a strong antagonist, as well: a Lee for a Grant, a Moriarty for a Holmes, a Frazier for an Ali. In this case, Manny is stunningly well matched by Ranken, a character who, under different circumstances, could have been given a movie all his own. When the two first meet in the beginning of the film, the tone between them is amused, playful even; one sees a pair of adversaries who, though they find themselves on opposite sides, recognize that they have more in common than not, including a fair share of mutual respect. Ranken is a despot, complete with Nietzschean declamations on the hierarchy of the universe (“First there’s God, then the warden, then my guards, then the dogs out there in the kennel, and finally you: pieces of human waste.”), yet beneath the steely façade there is the glimmer playful delight: the little boy who loves a good chase. You can see it in his impish grin and the fond, almost fraternal timbre his voice takes on whenever he speaks of Manny. “This guy,” he muses, as he tracks him across a vast glacier, “I’m telling you, he’d do the same thing I would do.” John P. Ryan gives Ranken a sly intelligence and a slightly disdainful air that suggests a man who once dreamed of bigger things; at another time, he could have been a Tamerlane or a Cromwell, a tyrant of distinction, but here he is, in the backend of nowhere, guarding the lowest form of human life on the planet. As the movie goes on, we see that he doesn’t hate Manny at all. Far from it: he admires him, as a man who, like himself, other men fear, and as his only worthy adversary. Ranken’s hubris is to see their rivalry as an adventure, a game between men, whereas Manny knows it’s a battle for life and death.

The hazard that such titans pose to the film as a whole is that they threaten to dwarf all the other characters in sight. Thus the importance of casting Eric Roberts as Buck, a man whose loose-lipped imbecility would undermine any well-laid scheme. Early in his life, Roberts showed such a knack for playing dimwits and weirdoes that people started to wonder whether it was really an act, and his career has been on a downward trajectory ever since. In this case, though, he is perfectly cast. In the hard-bitten world the prisoners inhabit, Buck’s guileless stupidity counts as the closest thing to innocence there is, making him the ideal foil for Manny’s seething misanthropy. It’s endearing to see him trying so hard to win the other man’s admiration, eagerly fawning over his criminal exploits, but also painful at the same time. It’s like watching Brandon De Wilde sucking up to Paul Newman in Hud (1963): you just know his illusions are going to be shattered in the worst way possible. Buck’s opposite on the train is Sara, played, rather surprisingly, by Rebecca De Mornay, though you’d hardly recognize her as the luscious hooker who deflowered Tom Cruise on his parents’ staircase only two years before. Her hair lank and matted, her features freckled and snow-burned, she has the weathered look that comes to people who spend too much time outside. She is, in fact, so unfeminine that the prisoners at first mistake her for a man, and throughout the movie she shows a hardiness that any man would envy. Her purpose in the film, as Roger Ebert aptly observed, is to act as a mirror for the cons.2 She is smarter than Buck, more humane than Manny, and blandly undaunted by either of them. In her presence, their crudity stands out like a bad toupee, and we see them for what they are: not the fearless toughs they make themselves out to be but two rather pathetic, unworldly men on the lam.

The true hero of the film, however, is the train. In any other movie, the protagonists would have chosen the locomotive by chance or through some hapless irony — the appearance of a nosy inspector, perhaps, forcing them to take refuge in precisely the wrong carriage — but not here. In this case, the protagonists do not so much choose the train as the train chooses them. Its introduction rivals the best character introductions in cinema. Even Harry Lime, seen smirking in a beam of impromptu limelight, can hardly contend with the sight of that first snub-nosed engine, slinking from beneath a veil of billowing steam. The machine, from the very get-go, seems to have a persona of its own, a trait made even more manifest after it tears through the caboose of another train, rending its prow like the face of the Elephant Man. There’s something both beautiful and ugly about it that beckons the eye. Indeed, some of the most striking images in the movie (and there are many contenders) are simply shots of the cars hurtling through the endless sea of white: as they cross an aged bridge, as they pass a herd of wild caribou, as they glide across an empty plain, dragging they skeins of mist. Narratively, these shots are little more than place-markers, beats of stillness between action, yet they are so visually arresting that it is easy to imagine an entire film being composed of them alone. When the camera, quivering with the fury of accelerated motion, bores in on the train as it plows across the grey tundra, the effect is undeniably stirring, though its hard to reason exactly why, except to say that it has a beauty that stands apart from story and character but is somehow inherent to movement itself. Is this not what film theoreticians mean when they speak of Pure Cinema?

The story itself is exceptionally ripe for interpretation. Depending on your perspective, it can be viewed as a tale of man versus nature, man versus machine, or man versus man. It might be seen as an example of the endurance of the human spirit or, conversely, a warning about the dangers posed by the increasing predominance of technology. “The train is a symbol for whatever you want it to be,” the film’s director, Andrei Konchalovsky, explains. “It can be viewed as a prison because they can’t get out of it, or considered as freedom because they escaped from prison on it, or considered as our civilization running out of control because no-one can stop it.”3 All of which makes Runaway Train sound cerebral and dull, but it’s not. It’s nearly impossible to watch Buck clawing his way along the side of the icy locomotive without holding your breath in apprehension or to see Manny’s fingers mangled in the coupling mechanism between carriages without wincing in pain. There is something stark and ominous in the film’s outlook that makes even its more placid sequences seem harrowing. As the locomotive chews up increasing stretches of track, the railway dispatchers are faced with an ethical quandary: they can crash the train, switching it onto a dead-end siding and killing the three passengers aboard, or let it run its course and risk having it plow into a nearby chemical plant, killing thousands. If this sounds familiar, it may be because it’s a variant of that old riddle used to illustrate the utility principle — would you kill one person to save a thousand? — yet with a human dimension the consequentialist philosophers of the 19th century never quite managed to convey. Recondite ethical concepts rarely sit well with films, and the great virtue of Runaway Train is not just that it poses such questions without prejudice or pedantry but that one can thoroughly enjoy it without having ever read a word of Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. It’s got more blood and guts than most war movies, and enough hair-raising stunts to intimidate Indiana Jones. As Konchalovsky points out, “You can say it’s a chase film, you can say it’s a cross between Road Warrior and Das Boot, you can say it’s a metaphor about our civilization but basically it’s an action adventure movie.”4

It also makes for a nice refutation to the auteur theory, so ingrained in our mythos of filmmaking. Though scholars today vehemently deny its logic, the standard movie narrative still stubbornly revolves around a single person: the director. This is nothing if not predictable, and so it is all the more refreshing to find a story of a film production that plays like a genuine ensemble piece. Though you might not guess it from the setting, the first draft of the screenplay was written by Akira Kurosawa. He based it on an article he’d read in Life magazine about a runaway train that tore through Rochester, New York in 1962.5 Initially, he intended to direct the film himself, planning to make it his first English-language picture, during his sojourn to the U.S. in the 1960s. After struggling with uncooperative weather and unreliable financing, though, he was forced to put the project on the back burner, first temporarily, and then permanently when the debacle of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) effectively torpedoed his American career. After being kicked around for over a dozen years, the screenplay landed under the nose of Francis Ford Coppola who decided, rather than directing it himself, to hand it over to a Russian émigré whose work he admired. This is how it fell into the hands of Andrei Konchalovsky.6

Born in Moscow in 1937, Konchalovsky was raised in what can only be described as an artistically fecund environment. His pedigree reads like a Who’s Who of Russian art history: he is the great-grandson of Vasily Surikov, the renowned 19th century historical painter; the grandson of Pyotr Konchalovsky, an influential 20th century post-Impressionistic painter; and the son of Natalia Konchalovskaya, a poet and translator, and Sergey Mikhalkov, a poet, playwright, and author of popular children’s books.7 (Additionally, he is the brother of film director Nikita Mikhalkov, and the brother-in-law of the late spy novelist Yulian Semyonov.) Originally intent on becoming a pianist, he switched to film in his twenties, studying at the Moscow Film School, where he befriended the young Andrei Tarkovsky.8 The pair collaborated on several screenplays together, including Tarkovsky’s first feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), as well as his epic Andre Rublev (1969). Konchalovsky made his own feature-directing debut in 1965, and quickly cultivated a reputation that flowered well beyond the iron curtain. His short The Boy and the Pigeon (1961) won Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival; Uncle Vanya (1970) won a Silver Seashell at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain; and Siberiade (1979), his sprawling portrait of the 20th century, seen through the lens of a small Siberian village, won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His career outside of Russia, however, has been more spotty. Maria’s Lovers (1984), despite a rambling plot and a rather preposterous premise — a heterosexual man who can get it up with every woman he meets except for Nastassja Kinski — has a lot going for it: a superb eye for composition, a sharp nose period detail, and a fine array of supporting performances, from Robert Mitchum, Keith Carradine, and a baby-faced John Goodman. On the other hand, though, there’s Tango and Cash (1988), a farrago of bad jokes, special effects, and cop movie clichés that, even by Sylvester Stallone’s less than sterling standards, scrapes the bottom of the barrel. Yet Konchalovsky has shown himself to be nothing if not versatile. Siberiade plays like a hearty paean to technology: all those shots of trains and bulldozers and oilrigs hewing the Motherland into a modern industrialized society. While Nest of Gentry (1969) is an ode, soft as a summer breeze, to the delights of pastoral beauty: the verdant fields, the mossy lakes, the gently rocking view, staring heavenwards, on an afternoon carriage ride. If this has made his oeuvre something of a mixed bag, it has also made it ceaselessly fascinating to follow. An artist who refuses to repeat himself may go off the rails at times but he’ll never lack for excitement.

It was Konchalovsky who persuaded Voight to take the role of Manny. Though the part seems unimaginable without him today, the actor was not the studio’s first pick. That honor went to Robert Duvall, still fresh from his napalm-loving colonel in Apocalypse Now (1979), and a logical choice for a man who’s id has been shorn of its superego. Duvall’s contribution to the film, before departing for greener pastures, was to bring in Eddie Bunker to rewrite the script.9 The main thing to know about Bunker is that he spent nearly twenty years of his life in prison. The son of a stagehand and a Busby Berkeley chorus girl, he grew up in a broken home and fell into crime at an early age, beginning with shoplifting, before working his way up to forgery, extortion, drug dealing, and bank robbery. In the 1950s, while serving time in solitary confinement, he was held in a cell near Caryl Chessman, the death row inmate whose memoirs made him a cause célèbre. Inspired by Chessman, Bunker began putting his own stories to paper, publishing his first novel while still in prison in 1973. Paroled in 1975, he switched from crime to crime fiction, and found a profitable second career in Hollywood, both as a screenwriter and as a character actor, where his thin graying locks and soft voice belied any notion of his felonious past.10 In Runaway Train, he did double duty, giving the script his imprimatur of authenticity, as well as playing the role Jonah, Manny’s only friend. Set in Wisconsin rather than Alaska, Kurosawa’s original screenplay contained no prison sequences, beginning, as so many of his movies do, in medias res, as the inmates hop aboard the train. In addition to polishing these scenes and giving the cons an authentic prison yard patois, Bunker changed Manny’s modus operandi from murderer to safecracker and gave the film its Shakespearean epigraph, from which he’d previously derived the title of his first novel.11

Train sequences are notoriously maddening to film. In addition to the challenge of constantly positioning and then repositioning an eight hundred ton string of locomotives there are, of course, the usual risks to life and limb associated with working on a vehicle moving sixty-plus miles an hour. In the case of Runaway Train, however, two additional factors further complicated matters for Konchalovsky and his crew: one, they were filming in sub-zero temperatures with wind and sleet scouring them from all angles, and two they were using the main line of the Alaska Railroad, running between Seward and Fairbanks. Every time another train came down the track, the movie train had to be hustled onto a siding to avoid collision. To make the most of the time they had, three cameras were used to cover the shots of the moving train. Professional mountaineers were hired to strap the crew securely in place. “You have to be an optimist to make a film about trains,” Konchalovsky stated afterwards. “I ended every day with more grey hairs.”12 Yet his previous experience undoubtedly served him well. After all, when you’re making a movie in a wintry clime, it helps to have already made a four-hour epic set in Siberia. If there’s anything Konchalovsky knows how to film it’s snow. To intensify the sense of cold, he and his cinematographer, Alan Hume, chose for the exteriors a palette of washed-out grey tints — not quite color but not quite black and white, either — heightening the contrast between the piercing whiteness of the snow and the ashy tracings of the mountains and the trees that fly past. They also frequently knocked their frame slightly off-kilter, allowing the camera to pick up the hiccups and convulsions of the train, thus imbuing the shots with some of the gritty naturalism of a war documentary.13 Strangely, the consequence of this is to make the compositions even more beautiful, not less. Since the success of the Bourne films, directors have come to relish the aesthetic of the palsied camera. But as Runaway Train shows us, such effects are hardly new and need not be manufactured. When Manny stumbles down the walkway in the final moments of the movie, there is something rather poignant in his inability to stand and the way the train tosses him about, like raft on a raging sea. It reminds us just how small he is and how frail compared to the instruments of man’s invention.

Which brings me to the final shot of the film, a strange and haunting image, at the end more charcoal drawing than photograph, that may be one the most exquisite ever caught on film. The shot in question is this: a man stands atop the lead — and now only — engine of the train. He is tilted forward at about two o’clock, his arms outstretched, bracing himself against the wind like the Spirit of Ecstasy on a Rolls Royce. As man and train recede from view, the snow begins to distort the image. Gradually, they grow fainter, fading into a mere shadow before disappearing into the mist. And that’s it. If you saw this picture in a book or on a museum wall, you might think little of it. It lacks both the clarity and the specificity that one generally expects from a still photograph. Yet cinema lends it an import that neither words nor still frames can rightly convey, a disturbing beauty that can only be half described, like the wind sawing through the wheat in the beginning of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). Maybe such images are best left unexplained. They are better watched than read. What I do know is this: if I had to sum up cinema with a single shot, to a benevolent alien species, say — to show its wonder, its magic, what it can make us feel — this is the image I would choose.

The man atop the engine is Manny, of course, speeding toward his death. We never see the crash. Having made his way with great difficulty to the lead engine, the only car capable of halting the train, he chooses the only option left to him besides a return to prison. After uncoupling the other carriages, thus sparing Buck and Sara from his fate, he climbs the ladder to the top of the train. It is there that we see him last, his teeth clenched, his eyes mere slits from the cold, a fearless beast riding into the storm.

  1. Bordwell and Thompson, p.466 []
  2. Ebert, Runaway Train []
  3. Paskin, p.14 []
  4. Paskin, p.14 []
  5. Young, p.79 []
  6. Paskin, pp.14-15 []
  7. Paskin, p.15 []
  8. Macnab []
  9. Combs and Davies []
  10. Bunker, pp.ix-xiii []
  11. Combs and Davies []
  12. Paskin, p.15 []
  13. Combs and Davies []