Monday, March 22, 2010

The Railrodder (1965)


I remember in elementary school when we had assemblies, we would watch a movie or a national TV event, like the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia, or a presentation of Pete's Dragon, or even a tour of the puppet cast for a program debuting later that year (which the name, for the life of me, escapes me).  Watching these kinds of things together in an auditorium sounds weird nowadays, but I guarantee you that they made some lasting impressions on my generation.  I may not remember the names of all of the programs we'd seen or the people who gave us presentations (a science-fantasy author for one, who was impressed with my theory on time and space relative to the speed of light), but I remember what had taken place, where I was sitting, who was with me and flashes of what we watched.

Tonight of all nights, I was struck by inspiration to track down the name of a movie we'd watched in one of those assemblies; in my mind it was a black-and-white silent film about a man riding on a railroad handcar cross-country and living as though he were in his own home.  It was an ingenious little film because it played on kids' love of trains, not to mention the rustic scenery that burned a permanent impression on my mind.  I happened to be watching a Buster Keaton film (Our Hospitality) in which in the early part of the film he was riding an ancient train from New York City to the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia to claim an inheritance.  I was fascinated by the fact that the train depicted as the 1829 Stevenson Rocket was a replica and really nothing more than a smallish steam locomotive pulling what looked like narrow and ornate stagecoaches. Seems as though Buster Keaton really liked trains; the movie I thought we watched in assembly, The General, was not in fact the same movie, but was great nonetheless (even if his character was inadvertently on the "wrong" [Confederate] side.) Nevertheless, it is considered one of the finest movies involving trains.

Then I got the notion to look online for movies involving handcars; the pump-trollies that you might remember from Westerns (Blazing Saddles; the quicksand scene) or Warner Brothers/Hanna Barbera  cartoons and I came across a great train enthusiasts site, Rail Serve, which among other things lists many movies that greatly involved trains.  I scrolled down the list until the cover art for one movie drew me in; Buster Keaton Rides Again featuring The Trainrodder.  I soon realized that yes, The Trainrodder was in fact the very same movie we watched in assembly and subsequently on TV all those years ago. 

My memories of the film were almost clear; it was in fact filmed in color, yet it had almost all the conventions of a silent film (a musical score and recorded sound effects, no dilogue).  I remembered much of the scenery and some of the visual gags that took place on the handcar, but it was not really a pump-trolley but a track speeder; a motorized rail cart similar in dimension to a golf cart used by track-workers. Also, the scenery was not strictly rustic; there were in fact as quite a few city scenes as there were backwoods scenes.  But that was actually part of the point of the film...

The Trainrodders depicts an English gentleman in London, England reading a full-page large type newspaper ad that simply states "SEE CANADA NOW!!" After jumping into the Thames, he emerges in what we gather is the eastern seashore of Canada and, upon discovering train tracks and a signpost that shows the Pacific Ocean being exactly 3,982-1/2 miles due west, he begins the long hike, but encounters a motorized trackrider.  While inspecting it, he sits down to relax and accidentally kicks it into gear, taking off like a shot down the track and leaving behind a chagrined track-worker on his break.

The rest of the short film depicts his inadvertently casual journey along the tracks on what amounts to be a speed buggy/mobile home as he makes his way across the Canadian landscape, including tours of Montreal, Ottowa and Vancouver (and all apparently on one tank of gas!).  As he's traveling along, he discovers that the cargo box contains just every amenity he can think of, from meals (including a tea service) to clothing and blankets and other accoutrements to make his journey rather comfortable; there's even a scene where he outfits the trackrider with tree limbs and brush to create a hunting blind as he traces a flock of geese also traveling west (the shotgun compliments of the inexhaustable supply cabinet from the trackrider).  During the trip, he also has several close brushes with trains mostly going in the opposite direction, some of them on the same track as he... 

I won't tell you what happens in the end, and it's not hard to see it coming, but it's still funny and punctuates the charm of this film.  Buster Keaton, in one of his last films, retains the same energy ingenuity from his youth during his heyday as a silent screen star, and the beautiful landscape is prominently featured throughout.  Director Gerald Potterman (Heavy Metal, animation for Yellow Submarine) sets a leisurely pace that is both engrossing and chuckle-inducing for kids and adults alike. 

As I said before, watching this movie as a child in assembly made a strong impression on me, and though 45 years have passed between the making of The Railrodder and now, I would not mind taking a similar journey in the a similar conveyance if the opportunity presented itself.  Of course, I'd have to have the permission of the Canadian railway authorities who helped make it all possible...

The movie was released by the National Film Board of Canada and serves as both a comedy and a travel documentary, serving both purposes well.  What has always been strange to me though is that it used to be shown in school and on TV, perhaps on PBS or even WPIX in New York, but it disappeared along the way and I hadn't seen hide nor hair of it until now.  Yet, it's a testament to the strength of the film's charm that I was able to track it down all these years later, still remembering certain scenes and sight gags like they were filmed yesterday.  Let me know what you think... >;)   

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