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 date
  • 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 $7.7 million (US)[2]

Runaway Train is a 1985 American thriller drama 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 were 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, but he is forced to set his escape plan into action in the middle of winter after Ranken employs a serial killer to stab him. Jonah stabs his attacker to death in retaliation and in turn is severely beaten by a prison guard, leaving him in a high-security hospital wing.

Manny has to leave his brother behind. He recruits Buck McGeehy, who was convicted of statutory rape and who works in the prison's laundry room, to smuggle him out in a trolley. Buck decides to join Manny in the escape, even though Manny wants to go it alone. After a freezing cross-country hike (involving a 300 ft (100 m) 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 the fourth unit and stow away in the toilet compartment. Just as the train starts to move, the elderly engineer suffers a heart attack. 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, the locomotives overpower the brakes, burning their shoes off and making it impossible to stop the train. Neither of the two convicts is aware of what has happened.

As the driverless train accelerates, dispatchers Dave Prince 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 system of his creation will automatically apply the brakes on the locomotives. After the last of the brake shoes burn off and the dispatchers realize the severity of their situation, they try 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 and believing that no one alive is on board, Barstow's superior Eddie McDonald orders him to derail the train.

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. The train continues towards the old Seneca trestle, where emergency workers are gathering in expectation of a disaster. Ranken concludes that his two escaped convicts are fleeing 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 clambered back to their location 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, a near-impossible feat since the second locomotive is 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 forces Barstow's to help him reach 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 although Buck has already 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. Suddenly 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-enemy 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 inside 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, 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.

Principal photography began on March 13, 1985 at the Butte, Anaconda, & Pacific Railway Yard (B.A.P.) in Anaconda, Montana. During filming, the crew realized they didn't have any real snow, due to warm temps ( a false spring) in the area. They used Christmas Tree flock for fake snow, & they had to keep it from melting on the tracks at the west yard. Cannon Films had to cut short its stay in Anaconda, & they moved onto Deer Lodge, Montana to film the prison scenes at the Old Montana State Prison. Approximately 200 extras were hired to participate to play prisoners in the scenes. They spend a week filming several scenes at the prison. Finally the second unit team went to Whittier Branch, Alaska to film on the Alaska Railroad tracks. The Bridge sequence was filmed on the Seneca Bridge on Placer Creak, about 5 miles (8 km) near Whittier. The scene where Jordan makes the switch on the tracks was filmed at Portage, Alaska. The cast & crew went to the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, California to film the interior of the train scenes & the prisoner's escape scene. Filming was finally completed in late April 1985.

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 Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry Museum in Wasilla, AK as can be seen on the front page of their website

  • 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. As of 2015, the locomotive has been stored, out of service, needing wheel work. A return to service on the Port Harbor Railroad is unlikely, as there is talk about sending the unit to another Respondek Operation.

  • 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.


Box office[edit]

Runaway Train had its premiere in New York City on November 15, 1985, followed by its limited release in 965 theatres on December 6, 1985. It made $2,601,480 on that weekend. It was released nationwide on January 17, 1986 and was well received by critics and audiences. The film also had a premiere in Anaconda, Montana at the Washoe Theatre on March 20, 1986. Invitations for the premiere were sent to people from the department of Commerce, Rarus Railroad and Cannon Films personal, as well as Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca DeMornay. However, none of the actors could attend. The film was considered a sleeper hit at the box-office and it made $7,936,012 worldwide.

Critical reception[edit]

Runaway Train received generally positive reviews, and holds an 87% "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]


The film was entered into the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.[10]

Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards Best Actor Jon Voight Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Eric Roberts Nominated
Best Film Editing Henry Richardson Nominated
ACE Eddie Best Edited Feature Film Nominated
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or Andrei Konchalovsky Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Menahem Golan Nominated
Yoram Globus Nominated
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Jon Voight Won
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Eric Roberts Nominated
Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing - Foreign Feature Won
Stuntman Awards Best Vehicular Stunt (Feature Film) Terry Jackson Nominated


  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. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Runaway Train". Retrieved 2009-07-11. 

External links[edit]