A train full of skiing revelers on the way down the mountain! But engineer Holly Gibson (Ben Johnson) has never seen it this cold before! But by tomorrow it won’t even matter because Holly is just one day from retirement! (The savvy traveler never takes public transportation piloted by a guy who is just trying to get through his last shift! It’s in all the guidebooks!)
But Holly’s been driving trains more than forty years! He can listen to his engine and knows what it’s trying to say to him! And just what is the old girl from the fictional Sierra Pacific line whispering in his ear as they head toward Jackson Station miles down the track? Brake failure! All of them! Regular brakes, brakes in the coaches and even the damn hand brake!
Now an engineer who might have not been driving trains since the transcontinental railroad first opened for business might be a little concerned about such trivialities of what just might happen if they take the upcoming curve at 70 miles per hour or if they somehow manage to keep her on the tracks through it, just what there is to slow them down at the end of the dead end track at Jackson Station except for a big piece of ugly metal and whatever passes for the Jackson Station Gift Shop and Cafeteria just beyond!
It is understandable (but a bit wimpy) when his second in command gets bent out shape when old Holly in between radioing HQ about the train’s certain doom in a detached yet folksy manner is talking about whether he’s going to take an engineer buddy up on his offer to buy into half of a farm or even more troubling, begin reminiscing about the white horse he used to ride when he was boy. “Why, we would ride next to the train that went by all the time when I was a child! The white horse never got used to it, but I sure did! By the way HQ, I think the brakeman just fell off the train and was ground into kibble. Now where was I?”
But what about those passengers who were last seen drinking and banging on luggage in a impromptu bongo session? Are they just as blasé about their impending high speed derailment and almost certain death? Heck no! They’ve switched to full on panic mode! And they all the have the back story and personal crisis that are part and parcel of any decent disaster flick!
As an early 1970s ABC Movie of the Week, there are a number of vaguely familiar names and almost remembered faces on the passenger manifest. There’s Vera Miles as the disenfranchised wife! She used to be in real movies, right? And Martin Milner sounds like the name of a guy who was in some famous 1960s TV shows. Also on board are some of your favorite stars from such hit shows as Alias Smith and Jones and the small screen version of Peyton Place! There’s even the kid from the movie about all those rats!
Runaway! is only 73 minutes long so there isn’t much time to devote to lots of personal problems between bouts of the wit and wisdom of the obviously delusional Holly and shots of the train grinding through the mountains. One couple is intent on divorcing and worry about how to break it to their kids. There’s a suicidal woman who doesn’t have the patience to wait to die from the train crash and is intent on jumping off the train to her death. Considering that, it seems a bit weird then that there is also a storyline about a father trying to get his son over his fear of climbing mountains and skiing and in an effort to please his dad, the kid agrees to jump off the speeding train with him in a desperate bid to not die in the coming crash!
Making good use of attractive and snowy Colorado locations, Runaway! also provides plenty of the authentic sounding jargon needed to ratchet up the tension, especially for those of us whose only knowledge about trains comes from having been read The Little Engine That Could as children. When I heard the train was traveling on tracks that were a 3% grade all the way down, I was thinking “holy crap! That’s a fifty percent steeper grade than 2%!” And when the angle cocks had to be manually checked to see if they were closed or not, I mindlessly nodded knowingly, thinking that, yep must be ice in the lines!
The movie faithfully delivers its bizarre and strangely compelling dichotomy of fearful passengers and laid back engineer right on through the last minute plan to save the train with another engine accomplished by Holly’s old buddy who is retiring to buy that farm. While the passengers are all breathing a sigh of relief, still stunned by their brush with death, the ever unflappable Holly advises his pal that after everything that happened, he’s not going to retire after all and in fact is going to drive the rails another five years! Then he radios HQ to brag that he brought the train into the station 23 minutes ahead of schedule!
Can you imagine how great Holly would have been piloting one of those big jumbo jets in the Airport series of films? No flop sweating Jack Lemmon or crazy-eyed Karen Black at the controls, just an aw shucks fella probably talking about hanging out at the local runaway chasing planes with his dog in between updating air traffic control about the engines they lost, the gaping hole in the side of the plane and the skyjacker trying to break into the cockpit.
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