Runaway Train (1985, USA)

Runaway Train - Jon Voigt as Oscar 'Manny' Mannheim and Edward Bunker as Jonah, with Eric Roberts as Buck McGeehy behind them

I guess I knew that this was never going to make my list of true prison movies, but I couldn’t ignore it after one of my correspondents, Peter – a man who has spent a bit of time in maximum security prisons – said of it, “The opening sequence of (the) film – the boxing scene – is easily the most authentic prison scene I have ever seen.”  On the other hand, not one of my train enthusiast readers has urged me to watch it for the authenticity of the careering train sequences.

Before he gets on the runaway train, Oscar ‘Manny’ Manheim (Jon Voigt) is a lifer who has twice broken out of the Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison in Alaska. In response, Warden Ranken (John P Ryan) has had him literally welded into his cell for three years… before a Federal court hearing a civil rights suit orders his removal.

Following the court decision, Ranken, a little provocatively and a little foolishly, describes Manny and most of the other Stonehaven prisoners as ‘animals’ in a media interview. In doing so, he predictably sets off a riotous disturbance, enhances Manny’s reputation within the prisoner population and cements his own. But in case they missed the point, he addresses the prisoners back inside the jail and tells them that they are collectively ‘pieces of human waste.’ We decide we like the sociopathic killer more than the sociopathic warden.

Despite being confined entirely to his cell for three years, Manny has kept super-fit and it’s clear he doesn’t want to stick around for the Warden to have him bumped off. He survives a knife attack, seemingly instigated by Ranken, with the attacker himself being stabbed in quick retribution by Manny’s old buddy, Jonah (Edward Bunker, real-life ex-con and writer of Animal Factory and other films). Manny promptly escapes again (still nursing a skewered hand) through the prison sewer and into the frozen landscape, having been joined on the spur of the moment by Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts), a young boxer who hero-worships him and talks too much.

They make it through lots of ice and snow to jump on a train going somewhere else. Almost immediately the engineer (I’m not sure why he isn’t called the driver) has a heart attack and dies theatrically (falling outside the train), leaving the four wagon train driverless (sorry, engineerless) and picking up speed.

Back at Railways Central, emergency-mode Frank Barstow (Kyle T Heffner), who has designed the multi-million dollar control system, frantically moves other trains onto sidings and other tracks and averts all sorts of catastrophes. But he can’t stop the train, which now travelling faster than a speeding bullet. After quite some time of the locomotive hurtling through the wintry Alaskan countryside, another passenger, a railway employee, Sara (Rebecca DeMornay), emerges. She gives her sceptical new companions some tips on how to reduce the train’s speed… and promptly becomes the ordinary citizen against whom the attitudes and distortions of the two escapees are measured and contrasted.

By this time Warden Ranken has deduced that his escapees are on the train, and (after some gratuitous threatening of poor Frank, just to confirm him as a thoroughly ugly and brutal man) tracks them in a helicopter. When his colleague tries to board the train from a rope ladder – and perishes, Ranken takes on the job himself; his beef with Manny is personal. He lands on the train not long after Manny has crushed his bad hand in a carriage coupling, so the long-awaited confrontation between the two sees Ranken with one firearm and Manny with one fine arm. Is Manny capable of one more inspirational act? Two? Three?

This is a more intelligent action movie than most. Intertwined with the thrilling bits are riveting scenes where the dynamics between Manny and Buck, the escapees and Sara, and Barstow and his boss are allowed to play out without impacting the suspenseful stuff. And the ice and snow and freezing temperatures serve to increase everyone’s vulnerability and add another dimension.

The prison scenes (shot at the Old Montana Territorial Prison in Deer Lodge) are cliché-ridden – but authentic, Peter insists. Which might just say that prison itself is a little cliché-ridden.

Runaway Train #2 - Jon Voigt as Oscar 'Manny' Manheim Runaway Train #3 - John P Ryan as Warden Ranken Runaway Train - Jon Voigt as Oscar 'Manny' Mannheim, Rebecca DeMornay as Sara and Eric Roberts as Buck McGeehy

Posted on February 9th, 2015 at 8:53 pm. Updated on February 9th, 2015 at 8:53 pm.

12 Responses to “Runaway Train (1985, USA)”

  1. February 14th, 2015 at 8:45 pm
    Peter McArdle says:

    Hi Eric,
    Thanks for the shout out. And I stand by my statement; the opening sequence, the stabbing during the boxing match, is how a stabbing actually goes down in a prison. I can’t imagine that this sequence is what you mean when you say cliché; I know of no other like it. Prison movie murders never seem to capture the actual frantic, chaotic, mistake riddled sloppy moment the way it actually happens. Directors seem to want to sanitize it. Clean it up. Make it look less awkward.
    But it is awkward. And hard to do. It requires great determination. While I was locked up I saw man turn and beat the living shit out of his knife wielding attacker; guy stuck him once and didn’t bring him down. Bad mistake.
    As for the welded in- the-cell sequence, I can tell you that Bunker told me it came from his own experience at San Quentin. Only, they didn’t lock him in there for three years. Overnight. The warden was so angry over something Eddie had done that he ordered Eddie’s cell door welded shut. So Eddie had his friends bring him bread and cheese and lunch meat. The cells in San Quentin have a stainless steel table welded to the wall. If you start a fire underneath the table you can use the table as a grill. Guys would wad up toilet paper and stick it to the bottom of the table with toothpaste and set it on fire. It would burn reasonably slowly, and heat the table to the point where you could grill a sandwich.
    Eddie realized since he was locked in, that the cops were also locked out. So he set about to grillin’ some sandwiches!
    The cops came by told him to put that shit out and he told them “fuck you.” And continued to grill. They called the warden, who had Eddie cut out of the cell the next morning.

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