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Runaway Train (film)

Runaway Train
File:Runaway trainposter.jpg
Promotional poster
Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Produced by Menahem Golan
Yoram Globus
Screenplay by Djordje Milicevic
Paul Zindel
Edward Bunker
Story by Akira Kurosawa
Music by Trevor Jones
Cinematography Alan Hume
Edited by Henry Richardson
Northbrook Films
Golan-Globus Productions
Distributed by The Cannon Group Inc.
Release dates
  • December 6, 1985 (1985-12-06) (Limited)
  • January 17, 1986 (1986-01-17) (Wide)
Running time
110 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $9 million[2]
Box office $8 million (US)[2]

Runaway Train is a 1985 American action-thriller film directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay and John P. Ryan. The screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker was based on an original screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, with uncredited contributions by frequent Kurosawa collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima. The film was also the feature debuts of Danny Trejo and Tommy "Tiny" Lister, who both proceeded to successful careers as "tough guy" character actors.

The story concerns two escaped convicts and a female railroad worker who are stuck on a runaway train as it barrels through snowy desolate Alaska. Voight and Roberts were both nominated for Academy Awards for their respective roles.


The story follows the escape of two men from an Alaska prison, the efforts of a railroad dispatch office to safely stop the out-of-control train they are on, and the hunt by their warden to recapture them. Oscar "Manny" Manheim is a ruthless bank robber and hero to the convicts of Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. After two previous escape attempts the doors to Manny's cell have been welded shut for three years. A court order compels Manny's nemesis, the vindictive and sadistic Associate Warden Ranken, to release him back into the general prison population. Manny intends to break out a third time with his older brother Jonah Manheim, but is forced to set his escape plan into action in the middle of winter. Ranken employs a serial killer to give Manny the incentive, by stabbing him grievously through his left hand. Jonah fatally stabs the serial killer to death in retaliation, and in turn is severely beaten by the prison guard, leaving him in a high-security hospital wing.

Manny wants to wait for Jonah, but his older brother affirms he's not fit to join him, and warns him not to wind up in solitary confinement again as it'll crush the convicts' spirits inside. He joins Buck McGeehy, another convict (convicted of statutory rape), who due to his position in the prison's laundry room is recruited to smuggle him out in a trolley. Buck idolizes Manny. Naive and unintelligent, Buck decides to escape with Manny, who does not care for company. The prison staff's discovery of the convicts' break out sets a riot in motion. After a freezing cross-country hike (involving a 300 ft drop into a river and subsequent swim) the two hop on board a train consisting of four locomotives at a remote Alaskan rail yard.

Both men enter aboard the fourth unit and take refuge in the toilet compartment. Just as the train is set in motion, Al the elderly engineer suffers a heart attack. In attempting to stop the train and get off, Al does not set the throttle to Idle, instead engaging the brakes, before collapsing off the still-moving train. This overrides the engine's automatic train stop. Consequently, although the brakes apply, the locomotives overpower them, and the brake shoes burn off, making it impossible to stop the train. Neither of the two convicts is aware of their situation, though Manny has suspicions the engines haven't hitched up to any freight cars. Buck dismisses his concerns and is convinced of their freedom to which the bank-robber scoffs. Manny becomes increasingly irate with Buck, who he begins to regard as a clown with a cocky attitude, and advises him to get the kind of job an ex-convict can get, like cleaning toilets. Buck angrily asks Manny if he can do something that demeaning, to which Manny confesses 'I wish I could', leaving Buck speechless.

As the driver-less train accelerates, dispatchers Dave and Frank Barstow are alerted to the situation. Unaware of the failure of the brakes, Barstow authorizes employees to allow the runaway out onto the mainline, arrogantly insisting that a computer-controlled signalling system of his creation will trigger a brake application on the locomotives. The last of the brake shoes burn off and the dispatchers realize the severity of their situation, forcing them to keep the tracks clear. The runaway soon smashes through the caboose of a freight train that was in the act of moving out of its path. The collision badly damages the cab of the lead locomotive and jams the front door of the second engine, an old EMD F-unit. The convicts on board are now aware something is seriously wrong and prepare to investigate. As the train accelerates to dangerous speeds, Barstow realizes that the locomotive's over-speed control is no longer working properly after the crash. Learning that the train's excessive speed will most probably collapse an old railroad trestle ahead, Barstow's superior Eddie McDonald arrives to order him to derail it, believing that no one alive is on board.

At this point the signal maintainer hears the train's horn, as do Manny and Buck relieved into thinking there's still an engineer on board, not knowing it is the second unit's horn sounding. Realizing that someone is indeed alive on the train, Barstow orders a reversal of the switch. The speeding train continues on-wards towards the aged Seneca trestle, where emergency workers are gathering in expectation of a disaster. Ranken concludes that his two escaped convicts are escaping by rail and makes his way to the dispatcher's office. Meanwhile, the two fugitives in the rear locomotive are alarmed when, a locomotive hostler named Sara, the only railway worker left on the train has clambered back there. Sara eventually manages to convince the men of their immediate crisis, explaining she had been asleep in the second unit and climbed back to the fourth engine in the belief she will be safer towards the rear of the train in another possible collision. Buck is skeptical of her, but Sara opens the window and shows them how dangerously fast the train is moving, confirming its out of control.

Manny asks Sara if anyone else knows about their presence, and she tells them after crashing into the rear of another train, everyone now knows about them. Determined not to be caught alive, and knowing Ranken will be wherever the train does stop, Manny decides to jump off the train. Sara convinces him that jumping off at that speed would be suicidal, and says someone must get to the lead engine so that they can press its fuel cutoff switch, but Sara says it's impossible because the second locomotive is a "carbody" F-unit with no forward catwalk. Its nose door, which would normally allow access to the lead engine, is still jammed from the collision with the freight. At her suggestion, they are able to slow the train somewhat by disconnecting the MU cables connected to the two rear locomotives, shutting them down and slowing the train enough for it to cross the Seneca trestle, despite going much faster than the bridge's speed rating. They made their way to the second engine, but both convicts are unable to pry open the jammed door.

The dispatchers divert the runaway onto a branch after determining it is only five minutes away from a head-on collision with a passenger train. This is only a brief respite, as further ahead the branch negotiates a tight curve adjacent to a chemical plant. Even at its reduced speed, the runaway is likely to derail on this curve and trigger a major chemical spill. His hand forced, Barstow agrees that they must switch the runaway onto a stub-ended siding and crash it, thus condemning the three people on the train to almost certain death, rather than risk a catastrophic chemical explosion. Warden Ranken, tired of waiting, confronts Barstow, who tells him to get lost. Ranken follows Barstow into the men's room and forces Barstow's head into a toilet, thus winning Barstow's cooperation in locating the train so Ranken can intercept it by helicopter.

Manny shows an increasingly violent streak, repeatedly asserting his dominance over Buck. Buck is desperate to please his partner in crime. Manny tries to force Buck to attempt a suicidal scramble around the outside of the second engine's frozen nose (Buck already having tried once and failed). Sara's intervention on Buck's behalf forces an armed face-off between the two convicts who threaten to kill one another. Manny ceases upon seeing Buck's disgust and sadness at his savageness. Buck informs him he's worse than Ranken, who is at least forthcoming with his brutality, even though Manny was adored by the inmates and seen as their hero. Emotionally broken, all three slump into a fatalistic depression in the F-unit's cab, only to be shattered, literally, when Ranken's accomplice crashes through the second engine's window and is killed after unsuccessfully trying to board the lead engine via helicopter. Ranken has now caught up with the train.

Spurred on by the appearance of his arch-foe, and resolved not to return to prison, even if it means his own death, Manny makes a perilous leap from the F-unit's broken windshield to the lead engine. Though he is successful, his left hand is crushed in the coupling. The warden successfully boards by helicopter also. Seeking refuge in the damaged cab, Manny manages to disarm and subdue Ranken and handcuffs him inside the cab. With Ranken his prisoner now, Manny is in control of the runaway engine. The locomotives are approaching the end of the abandoned spur, crashing through a disused tunnel. Ranken taunts him and orders Manny to shut down the engine, which he refuses, as he has decided to die and take Ranken with him. When Ranken inquires about Buck and Sara, the exhausted Manny heads back outside. To the music of the second movement of Antonio Vivaldi's "Gloria" in D ("Et In Terra Pax"), Manny uncouples the lead engine from the rest of the train, shutting down the second engine, leaving Buck and Sara safely behind.

He waves goodbye, refusing to stop the lead engine despite Buck's screaming pleas. Manny climbs onto the roof of the lone engine in the freezing cold and blowing snow, his arms stretched out, ready to meet his end. A series of cross-cuts show Buck and Manny's fellow inmates mourning in their cells at Stonehaven, while Jonah smiles proudly, as the lone engine disappears through a snow storm. The film closes with an on-screen quote from William Shakespeare's Richard III:

"No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity."
"But I know none, and therefore am no beast."



Akira Kurosawa wrote the original screenplay intending it to be his first color film following Red Beard, but difficulties with the American financial backers led to it being shelved.[4]

The Alaska Railroad decided that their name and logo would not be shown. Several scenes referred to the railroad as "A&E Northern." The filming took place near Portage Glacier, Whittier, and Grandview.

The prison scenes at the beginning of the movie were filmed in Deer Lodge, Montana, and some railroad yard scenes were filmed in Anaconda, Montana.

The runaway train's lineup in the movie consisted of four Alaska Railroad locomotives, all built by EMD: GP40-2 #3010, F7 #1500, and #1801 and #1810, both GP7s. The latter two locomotives had previously been rebuilt by ARR with low short hoods as opposed to a GP7's original high short hood, but were fitted with mock-up high hoods made of plywood for the film, branded with fictional numbers 531 and 812, respectively. Because #1801's cab had been reconstructed prior to filming, the '531' prosthetic hood stood slightly higher than the normal hood height of a GP7 in order to fit over the locomotive's number-board.

The locomotives used in the film have gone their separate ways:

  • ARR GP40-2 #3010 is still active on the Alaska Railroad, painted in the new corporate scheme.
  • ARR F7 #1500 was retired from service in 1992, is now at the Alaska Transport Museum in Anchorage, AK.
  • ARR GP7 #1810 was sold to the Oregon Pacific Railroad and operated as OP #1810. In 2008, the unit was sold to the Cimarron Valley Railroad and is now permanently coupled to former OP Slug #1010.
  • ARR GP7 #1801 was sold to a locomotive leasing company in Kansas City, MO, then sold to the Missouri Central Railroad and operated as MOC #1800. The locomotive subsequently appeared in another motion picture, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, in 1995.[citation needed] MOC became the Central Midland Railroad in 2002. As Central Midland had their own leased power, MOC 1800 was returned to Midwest Locomotive In Kansas City. Shortly after, it was then sold the Respondek Rail Corp of Granite City, IL and is now used on Respondek's Port Harbor Railroad subsidiary. The unit's identification is RRC #1800.
  • The train that was hit by the runaway was led by MRS-1 #1605. This unit had been retired in 1984, one year before filming started. The unit has since been cut up for scrap.
  • Sequences set at the rail yard, shot on the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway in Anaconda, Montana, used local locomotives from the BA&P fleet along with former Northern Pacific EMD F9 #7012A, leased from the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad. The two GP7s and the F9 were fitted with plywood boxes to duplicate the distinctive 'winterization hatches' carried on their Alaskan counterparts.
  • BA&P EMD GP38-2 #109, the BA&P locomotive used in the yard scenes as the lead-engine in place of ARR #3010, was subsequently sold to the Alaska Railroad and remains in service there as #2002, along with sister unit #2001 (ex-BA&P #108).

Richard (Rick) Holley was killed during filming when the helicopter he was piloting hit power lines on the way to a location shoot in Alaska. The film is dedicated to him during the closing credits.


Critical reception

Runaway Train received generally positive reviews, and holds an 86% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[5] Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times, felt that much of the film was absurd but that Jon Voight's performance was excellent, and she credits the film for "crude energy and bravado."[6] In 2010, movie critic Michael Phillips said on his show At the Movies that it was the most under-rated movie of the 1980s. Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars.[7]

In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films.[8] Runaway Train was listed at 64th place on this list.[9]

Box office

The film was a box office success.[10]


The film was entered into the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.[11]

The film received three Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Supporting Actor (Eric Roberts), and Best Film Editing (Henry Richardson).


  1. ^ "RUNAWAY TRAIN (18)". British Board of Film Classification. January 16, 1986. Retrieved December 13, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Andrew Yule, Hollywood a Go-Go: The True Story of the Cannon Film Empire, Sphere Books, 1987 p189
  3. ^ In the play the first line is spoken by the character Lady Anne, the second by the Duke of Gloucester (later to become King Richard III).
  4. ^ Kurosawa, Akira (2009). Dodes'Ka-den (Akira Kurosawa: It's wonderful to create – Kurosawa Uses Color) (DVD). The Criterion Collection. 
  5. ^ "Runaway Train". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  6. ^ Janet Maslin (December 6, 1985). "Film: Runaway Train from Konchalovsky". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The 100 best action movies". Time Out. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 
  9. ^ "The 100 best action movies: 70-61". Time Out. November 3, 2014. Retrieved November 7, 2014. 
  10. ^ "'Purple,' 'africa' Pace Box Office – Los Angeles Times". 2000-07-05. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  11. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Runaway Train". Retrieved 2009-07-11. 

External links