Runaway Train (film)

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Runaway Train
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 survival-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 has to leave his brother behind as a result. He recruits Buck McGeehy, another convict (convicted of statutory rape), due to his position in the prison's laundry room to smuggle him out in a trolley. Buck decides to join Manny in the escape, the latter not caring for company. 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 stow away in the toilet compartment. Just as the train is set in motion, the elderly engineer suffers a heart attack, and in attempting to stop the train and get off, he 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 what has happened.

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 the 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 subsequently 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. Barstow realizes that the locomotive's over-speed control must have been disabled in 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 train's horn blows, alerting the signal maintainer and the convicts that someone is present on the train. Barstow orders a reversal of the switch. It continues 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 they are discovered by the only other person left on the train, a locomotive hostler named Sara, who had clambered back to where they are in the belief that she would be safer in the event of another collision. They realize that the train is out of control and that she had sounded the horn from the second locomotive.

Sara convinces the convicts that jumping off the train at its current speed would be suicidal, and explains that the only way to stop the train would be to climb into the lead engine and press its emergency fuel cut off switch, made impossible by the second locomotive being a "carbody" F-unit with no forward catwalk. Its nose door, which would normally allow access to the lead engine, has been jammed from the collision with the freight train. They are, however, 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.

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 coerces Barstow's cooperation in locating the train by helicopter.

Manny shows an increasingly violent streak, repeatedly asserting his dominance over Buck. He tries to force Buck into 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. Emotionally broken, all three slump into a fatalistic depression in the F-unit's cab, only to be shattered 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. He barely makes it, crushing his hand between the knuckle couplers in the process. Ranken meanwhile has boarded the locomotive from the helicopter. Manny ambushes him as he enters the cab and handcuffs him to the inside of the locomotive. Ranken orders Manny to stop the train before it crashes at the end of the siding but Manny has chosen to die and take the warden with him rather than be recaptured. When reminded of Buck and Sara in the second engine Manny tells Ranken, ‘Oh no. It's just you and me!’, and proceeds to detach the lead locomotive from the rest of the train.

He waves goodbye, ignoring Buck's screaming pleas to shut down the lead engine, and 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 into the 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[edit]

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[edit]

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. 

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