“Head ’em up! Move ’em out!” [Eric Fleming on the TV Show “Rawhide” (1959-1965)]
We now come to the last of my three posts involving the act of transportation for TV and for the movies. Since I’ve already covered air and sea, the only one left is Land. Of course, there are many ways to travel on land. One of the most popular means is by train and actually the very first American action movie ever made was by train. That film (I’m sure you all will not remember it) was “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Like most movies made back then, it was very short, in that it was only twelve minutes long. It also was very simplistic (Hey, how complex could it be if the movie was only twelve minutes long). The plot consisted of a bunch of outlaws stopping a train, robbing the assorted passengers while killing a bunch of people. Then the local authorities are notified, give chase, catch up to the outlaws, and kill them all. The End! Needless to say, for its time the movie was a blockbuster hit. It also incorporated such innovations as on-location shooting, frequent camera movement, and a split screen showing two different actions going on at the same time. Of course, looking at it now is about as artistically entertaining as watching someone feed a loaf of stale bread to a bunch of ducks in a pond. However, back then, break out the Oscars everyone (except the Oscars weren’t invented yet!)
Travel by train has covered all types of movies from romance [“Brief Encounter” (1945)], to comedy [“Some Like It Hot” (1959)], to mystery [“Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)], to action [“Runaway Train” (1985)] , to war films [“The Train” (1964)], to suspense [“The Narrow Margin” (1952)], to horror [“Terror Train” (1980)], and to westerns [“How the West was Won” (1962)] for example. “Wait a minute!” some of you might be saying at my Western choice. “That wasn’t a movie exclusively involving a train!” This is true, but what a train traveling sequence it had.
“How the West…” was an epic Western movie shot in Cinerama which was a wide screen three camera synchronized process which projected an image onto a curved screen. Not too many feature length films were ever made using this process due to the difficulty in shooting it, and the need for having special theaters with large curved screens to truly enjoy the process which ultimately was too cost prohibitive. The movie followed the four generational Rawlings family traveling and settling across the vast United States during the period of 1839-1889 and how they were a part of HOW THE WEST WAS… (you get the message!) It had an all star cast along with six art directors, five separate story sections, four cinematographers, three film directors, two film composers, and a Partridge in a Pear Tr… (Ah, never mind!) There were many things to like and dislike about this movie. I liked it, but then I’m also the biggest sucker in the world for a Western. However, I’d like to mention the final story’s section which involved a train robbery by a gang of outlaws (almost 60 years after the movie, “The Great Train Robbery”).
Arizona U.S. marshal Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard, bland as always) runs into an old enemy, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach, chewing the acting scenery worse than a plague of locusts), who makes veiled threats against Zeb and his family over Zeb’s prior killing of Gant’s brother. Instead of waiting for Gant to strike first Zeb enlists fellow marshal Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) and his deputy in setting up a trap for Gant and his gang by hiding in the front passenger car on a train loaded with a large gold shipment hoping that they will try to rob the train. They sure do and that’s when you start to witness maybe, the greatest western train robbery shootout in film history.
Henry Hathaway directed this section of the film and he has you on the edge of your seats. From the large outlaw gang riding on their horses and leaping onto the rear of the train, to the train barreling through trees laid across the train tracks like they were match sticks, to Zeb and Ramsey blasting the outlaws as they try to enter their passenger car, to numerous outlaws being shot off logs on top of a flatbed train car by the lawmen, to Zeb hanging on for dear life to loose logs on the flatbed train car that detaches from the main train while being shot at by Gant, to Zeb having a clear shot at Gant, and to finally having the detached group of the train cars in the rear jumping their tracks sending humans and assorted stuff flying everywhere what more is there to be said (I think just writing this sentence took more than twelve minutes)! Well, there is one thing that I could still say, “Hey, how were the outlaws going to ride away with the Gold if they left their horses behind? Uber???”
A number of movies and TV shows involving transportation on land can consist, basically, of either “running from” or “heading towards” someone or something. On TV, for “running from” there was the classic TV show, “The Fugitive” (1963-67) with David Jansen starring as Dr. Richard Kimble, wrongly convicted of murder running from being recaptured as well as the later movie version made in 1993 starring Harrison Ford. Both were huge hits. There was also the made for TV cult movie, “Duel” (1971) starring Dennis Weaver as a lone driver on a business trip across the Mojave Desert running from a menacing truck driver using his vehicle as a weapon to terrorize and threaten his life. It was one of the first things that a young 24 year old kid director by the name of Steven Spielberg did and in which he received critical acclaim.
For movies, there were films like “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and “Bullitt” (1968) with Steve McQueen although technically, he was only “being followed” not “running from” first before he turned the tables and became the chaser, and not the chase(e)! Two other fine “running from” movies both directed by George Miller were “The Road Warrior” (1981) along with it’s even better re-make, “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015). The S/F storyline concerns Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a psychologically damaged ex-cop who roams a post-apocalyptic Australian desert wasteland trying to survive while being chased (running from?) by different groups he encounters. Hardy is terrific in the role, and he is equally matched by Charlize Theron as Furiosa, an underling for a psychopathic tyrant, Immortal Joe, and who teams up with Max after double crossing Joe by helping his five wives escape his control. What then ensues is one long chase for the rest of the movie.
Miller’s direction was unusual in many ways. One, only twenty percent of the effects in the film were CGI created. Otherwise, the rest were all practical effects which included stunts, make-up, and sets. Two, the movie was shot in sequence, namely, in order from beginning to end. Three, before the film’s original screenplay was created, a storyboard (a graphic organizer of illustrations of images shown in sequence to pre-visualize a motion picture) was created by five artists which consisted of 3,500 individual panels. Four, Hardy’s character was almost mute (he only had 52 lines in the entire film) and almost feral with Hardy slowly regaining bits of his humanity as the film proceeds. Miller also wanted the movie to be in the form of a modern western and it succeeds brilliantly. Miller received a well deserved Best Director Oscar nomination and the movie was nominated for an additional 9 Oscars winning 6 in all. Not too bad for someone running from something!
There were also memorable transportation on land movies and TV shows about individuals heading towards something. Two classic Western TV shows “Wagon Train” (1957-65), and “Rawhide” (1959-65) explored people heading west for either (1) a new life or (2) to get paid after delivering a herd of cattle. Movies explored this also in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) about the Joad family headed by Henry Fonda heading west to California to work as migrant farmworkers during the Great Depression of the 1930s or “The Pride and the Passion” (1957) about a British Naval Officer (Cary Grant) helping a Spanish guerrilla army led by Frank Sinatra (As a Spaniard? Si!) during the Napoleonic war in Spain to move a giant cannon over 1,000 km. to blast through the walls of the French held city of Avila. Then you had others like “Taras Bulba” (1962) about the Cossacks led by Yul Brynner marching against the Polish Empire to take back their Ukrainian homeland or “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) with Peter O’Toole leading Arabian desert tribes against Turkish forces during World War I. While all of these epic films are memorable in different ways I’d like to mention another film that, while much smaller, is easily a fine example of someone heading towards something, not once, not twice, but three times! That movie is the German film, “Run Lola Run” (1998).
“Lola” was directed by Tom Tykwer and starred Franka Potente as Lola, the girlfriend of Manni, a bagman responsible for delivering 100,000 marks to his criminal boss. Unfortunately, he lost the money and now Lola has just 20 minutes to somehow, obtain 100,000 marks and get the money to Manni or his boss will kill him. So what does Lola do??? She…
Tykwer’s film is a portrait of fate and how random chance occurrences and actions can completely alter what happens next in one’s life. This is wonderfully realized in three different alternative scenarios with Lola running here and running there, bumping into or interacting with different individuals, some inconsequential while others being individuals of major importance. All the while, Tykwer’s fast paced camera work and film editing is almost as fast paced as Lola’s running (Potente must have ran two marathons while making this film). Tykwer also includes some additional fun touches like throwing animated sequences into the action along with having swiftly edited montages of what happens to different individuals when Lola has momentary interactions with them while racing along (and their different outcomes in each of the three vastly different scenarios). By the time the movie ends (after a briskly paced 80 minutes), you almost feel like your head is spinning and you psychologically ran as much as Lola. However, perhaps in your case, I’ll bet you have a smile on your face too!
Since our Lola was racing against the clock, it’s appropriate that the last group of movies that I want to discuss involving transportation on land are movies that actually involve racing, either on foot or by other means. A couple of these movies are comedies. The first, “The Great Race” (1965), was a slapstick turn of the century auto race comedy inspired, very loosely, on two international auto races in 1907 and 1908. It starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and was the most expensive comedy made at that time. Other than the fact that it had the largest pie fight ever made (4,000 pies in all) and that it took over five days to film, the movie stunk (worse than the set that the pie fight was filmed in after it was left half-cleaned over the weekend). The movie was about as sophisticated as a wrecking ball in a monastery, and it was a precursor to overblown big budget comedy disasters like “Ishtar” (1987). The other comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) made two years earlier was somewhat better. It was also a race, mostly on land, by a group of strangers to find the stolen $350,000 of a dying crook. Director Stanley Kramer helmed this heavy-handed comedy Epic (it was originally 210 minutes long and also filmed in Cinerama) and all that was missing were audience breaks for the patrons to receive blood transfusions. It had just about every comedian in existence in the film with the lone serious actor of the bunch, Spencer Tracy, almost acting like a comedic traffic cop trying to keep order. The movie was successful although it barely made a profit which “The Great Race” couldn’t claim. It was even nominated for a number of Oscars, and there were times when it was actually even funny (you had to have a few laughs for something 210 minutes long). However, after its conclusion, one just might want to watch a marathon of Igmar Bergman movies to mentally unwind.
Fortunately, there were other serious racing movies that were far better like “The Black Stallion” (1979) and “Seabiscuit” (2003) about horse racing, “Chariots of Fire” (1981) about two British runners competing at the 1924 Olympics, “Breaking Away” (1979) about competitive bicycle racing, and the last film I will discuss, “Ford vs. Ferrari” (2019). This movie chronicles the efforts by a team of Ford car engineers and designers led by racecar driver/designer Carroll Selby (Matt Damon) and racecar driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to develop a racecar capable of beating the dominant Ferrari racing team at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.
This movie was vastly different than other racecar movies previously made in that it explored other areas rather than just the racing aspects alone. It studied the overall history of how the competition (feud) started between the CEO Henry Ford II and the founder of Ferrari, Enzo Ferrari and how Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) created the Ford racing division to take on Ferrari. It also explores the manipulative methods that Selby, Miles, and Iacocca had to use to develop the Ford GT40 against corporate interference to enable Ford to ultimately challenge Ferrari’s dominance. It also was a character study of the professional side of Shelby (his private life was left out) and both the professional and the personal side of Miles along with his strong relationship with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) and their son. Lastly, it’s a study of Selby and Miles relationship with each other and how even their differences (Miles could be extremely difficult to deal with) were offset by a deep and abiding respect and love for each other.
Director James Mangold directs these various film aspects brilliantly. He also elicits terrific performances from the entire cast. He is probably the only director who has directed a movie about car racing to successfully show, on a basic level, how racing cars are designed and developed along with how the various mechanics, and other support staff provide assistance both before and during a race (and it’s interesting, not boring). Most of all, when there are actual racing scenes they are heart pounding exciting. “Ford vs. Ferrari” has some of the best racing car action scenes since “Grand Prix”(1966) and, whether it is CGI or not, they are well worth viewing. “Ford vs. Ferrari” won a well deserved Oscar nomination for Best Picture (although both Damon and especially, Bale along with Mangold were ignored).
This concludes my three part discussion about transportation in the movies. I hope that you enjoyed my pontifications on this subject. For air, sea, and land there are numerous good film selections to be made and I hope that my comments help you into making good choices for viewing while also avoiding possible turkeys. And if nothing else, always remember, never watch anything with the title “Snakes on a…”
Roman Trireme, etc.
(Even if it’s less than 12 minutes long!)