Bad original title there. It sounds as if Ben Johnson should be at the controls and Charles Bronson should be the expert who figures out how to save all the passengers except the nut-case villain, maybe Dennis Hopper, who expires along with all the machinery in an exploding fireball as the locomotive plummets from an open bridge into a ravine. But, nope.
Kurasawa was having his problems at the time he supervised the writing of this story and it was given over to Konchalavsky to direct. There aren't very many characters in the film. Mainly John Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca DeMornay (looking fresh faced, freckled, and quite attractive), with John Ryan thrown in mainly to provide a real flesh-and-blood living villain, in addition to the impalpable philosophical ones that are everyone's chief concern. Existentialism is one of those now practically-dead passing French intellectual fads, become a word now loosely thrown around that can mean pretty much anything you want. But in its original post-war form it had a rather specific definition, if you could distill it from Sartre and Camus. The main point was that existence precedes essence, meaning that you weren't born for any particular purpose -- good or bad -- and that you defined yourself through voluntary actions. The second point was that social rules meant very little and could be disregarded at will, as long as you were ready to accept the consequences of breaking those rules. This whole movie illustrates exactly those points in a symbolic, yet realistic and exciting way.
Voight and Roberts are introduced in a rather lengthy, suspenseful introduction set in a Northwestern prison run by Ryan. They escape by slipping naked through a long and filthy sewer pipe and are shot out through the air into a clear cold fast-running river. (Getting an anatomical allusion here?) They manage to steal some clothes and board the empty, second locomotive of a train whose sole engineer drops dead and falls off. (The engineer stands for Somebody, too, with a capital S. I hope you're getting all this.) Another passenger is discovered. Always nice to have a young woman around. But with nobody at the controls of the unreachable lead locomotive, and with its brakes burned out, the train begins to pick up speed. The three of them wind up stuck on a train rocketing in the general direction of nowhere and, try as they may, they have no influence over its course or speed. Worst of all, it's rapidly approaching a "dead end" (get that one?).
By means of ingenuity, sacrifice, and simple human doggedness the lead locomotive is uncoupled from the rest of the train. While the remaining cars slowly roll to a halt, the lone locomotive roars towards its finish. We don't see the expectable slow-motion drop and explosion for the simple reason that we don't need to. We already know the end is upon us -- I mean upon the "train." And the final image, of Voight standing alone atop this hurtling monster of speed, weight, and power, holding his arms upward in defiance, the air filled with huge flakes of wet snow, is finish enough. You don't need a fireball after that climactic shot.
I'm afraid I've made this movie out to be some sort of dumb, talky, too-long allegory -- but believe me, it's not. The simple narrative itself is riveting. I can hardly remember another movie in which the performers seemed so terribly cold and uncomfortable, wrapped in rags, caps pulled in an unsightly way around their ears, their faces flushed by the whistling wind, their fear and desperation so visible in everything they do, their failures and minor triumphs looming so pathetically large in the story. This train -- or the compartment of the locomotive, which is about all of the interior we see -- has no oysters on the half shell, nor a nice warm Franklin stove or any other source of heat. It's nothing more than cold, dull iron, and we are all aboard, bound for the end of the line. The musical score couldn't be more apt -- sustained, low, rumbling, elephantine -- a massive and powerful and inexorable chord.
What a gripping picture. How did Goldang Globus Hystericus ever manage to produce such a great film?
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