Movies like The Big Sleep, Hud and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest are actually better than the books in which the films were based. On the screen, the quirks of a character often pan out much better than they do on the written page. Few writers today know how to describe action sequences in a way that does not bore the reader, and these sequences are usually where we can learn the most about what a character is like. In prison flicks in particular, we get to see characters act out and often get punished for preferring to be more than just a toady for someone else. Obviously, the movies tend to glamorize some of the inmates and do not reflect reality. But in any case, it’s the perfect backdrop for giving us characters that will not fit in anywhere else.
I don’t care for movies where the prisoners are educated and sensitive to the needs of society. The Shawshank Redemption gave us the same sickeningly wizened old man that Morgan Freeman plays in just about every other movie that he is in. The Birdman of Alcatraz sanitizes the character of Robert Stroud to the point that we wonder how he could ever have earned himself a sentence in a maximum-security prison. (Take a tour of Alcatraz sometime and find out what Robert Stroud actually had done.) The prison movies that I do like include Angels with Dirty Faces, one of only a handful of good performances put out by James Cagney, The Great Escape with Steve McQueen as the Cooler King, and my personal favorite, Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman playing the irreverent and irresponsible prison icon who never knows when to quit.
Runaway Train is another such movie. The plot of the movie is improbable, but the characterization of the three lead characters is superb. Oscar Manheim (“Manny”) has been welded in his cell for three years after making his third escape from a maximum-security prison in Alaska. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is ordered to let Manny out of the hole by the courts. When Buck (Eric Roberts) and the other prisoners find out that Manny is to be let out, they celebrate by setting everything on fire in the prison that will burn. We find Manny (Jon Voight) doing push-ups in the cell when Ranken gives him the news. There can be no doubt that Ranken wants to kill Manny. A prison stooge for Ranken attempts to kill Manny while he and his friend Jonah are watching Buck in a prison-boxing match. This leaves Manny with a knife wound to the shoulder and hand, but it fails to leave Manny any less defiant. Jonah mortally stabs the prisoner that attacked Manny, but Jonah is then badly beaten by the guards. Manny visits Jonah in the hospital ward and tells Jonah that he’s about to make one more escape, despite the fact that the temperatures outside have reached thirty below. Jonah tells Manny to “get on with it” and wishes him well, but says that he can’t go himself. Buck then helps Manny escape and much to Manny’s chagrin decides to tag along with Manny. Buck is a petty criminal who is not in the same league as Manny. Buck is a hero worshiper. He worships Manny and Jonah without understanding what the two of them really are like.
Manny and Buck make their way across the Alaska wilderness and hop a ride along a freight train. Unfortunately, they picked the wrong one; the engineer dies of a heart attack as soon as the train gets going and the brakes on the train are burned off. Nobody else is on board the train that can stop it. A young believer in reason and science, Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner), designed a computerized system to control the trains, and he attempts through use of his computer to stop the train in hopes that no one will be killed. Barstow’s a dull person and the movie would almost have been better off without him if not for one interesting scene. Barstow is pressed by Ranken to tell on what track the train is located. When Barstow refuses to cooperate, Ranken sticks Barstow’s face into the toilet that Barstow just urinated in. Ranken then explains to Barstow that he needs to get his prisoners back to avoid a prison riot. Ranken tells him that Barstow’s “brains are too puny” to imagine what a prison riot is like. Barstow understandably decides to be cooperative.
Meanwhile, back on the train, Manny and Buck discover another railroad employee on board. After
clubbing the employee once over the head, they discover that it’s a woman named Sara (Rebecca Demornay). Sara doesn’t add much to the movie, but she doesn’t detract either. (Despite the sex kittenish reputation of Demornay, it’s to the credit of the director, Andrei Konchalovsky, that they do not make her look glamorous.) She mainly plays Buck and Manny off against each other. It’s over Sara that Buck fights Manny in a fight that could have ended either prisoner’s life. It’s in this fight that we see Buck redeem himself. And in that fight scene, we also see the dark side of Manny and why he was in prison to begin with. Manny comes very close to killing Buck for no other reason than Buck was getting in his way. Buck discovers an unpleasant truth about Manny, and Manny discovers an unpleasant truth about himself.
Now Barstow being his pathetic self is unable to stop the train. It’s up to Ranken to reach the train by helicopter, climb on board the front engine, and shut the engines down. Unfortunately for Ranken, he did not anticipate that Manny was going to make his way up to the front engine by leaping from the second car to the first. Manny catches Ranken by surprise, handcuffs Ranken inside of the front engine, says a few parting words to him, disconnects the front engine from the rest of the train (thus saving Buck and Sara), and then climbs to the top of the train to await the final crash that will kill both him and Ranken.
Manny is a strange one. He quotes Nietzsche, gives career advice to Buck, disdains all human contact (outside of Jonah), is capable of great deeds and great cruelty, and at first relishes the idea of achieving victory over Ranken. Manny is too untamed to ever fit in anywhere. Ranken is a disciplinarian and tyrant (as Buck says, “upfront with his bullsh*t”) who secretly admires Manny and publicly lets it be known that he wants to kill him. Buck is ignorant and brash, but he is capable of growing up.
Voight and Roberts as Manny and Buck wonderfully display the looks, speech and mannerisms of felons. Ryan as Ranken looks like G. Gordon Liddy and conveys the contempt that Ranken has for everyone so adeptly that he’s perfect as a law and order warden. Yet this movie is more than just social realism. It exemplifies both the limitations and potential greatness of human beings. Ranken believes that his prisoners are less than dogs, despises the great intellects (like Barstow) that can’t see the prisoners are beyond hope and not worth saving, and reasons that most men are only motivated by fear. He can anticipate every move that Manny makes upon his escape from prison. Ranken is always right in all things that count except about one thing. Ranken cannot envision himself as being a lesser man than anyone else, especially if that other person is a prisoner in his charge. He underestimates Manny and this costs him his life. Manny is the Ubermensch. Manny shuns comfort and the company of other men, and this makes him unfathomable and dangerous. Manny rejects conventional morality and distant gods. Manny wants freedom, but understands that freedom ultimately comes from ones own courage and audacity. Though understanding that most people neither comprehend nor even desire real liberation, Manny cannot live fulfilled without it.
This movie is weak whenever Manny, Buck or Ranken are not on the screen. It’s powerful when the three are present. It should bring solace to no one. Social conservatives will be offended by the offering up of a genuine felon as a hero. Utopian liberals will be offended by the notion that a society generally cannot remedy its own ills – that true freedom comes from within. In the movie as a whole, everything comes together. The screenplay of this movie was by Akira Kurosawa who knows how to convey adventure. The spectacular film footage of Alaska gives the movie a feeling of isolation, and the overly dramatic soundtrack gives the movie some additional vibrancy. Yet the movie would have been nothing without Voight and Roberts playing their best and most atypical roles. Roberts, in particular, plays a role that is more authentic than anything his famous younger sister ever played. I’ve seen no other film in twenty years since the movie came out as rugged or raw as this movie. I’ve also seldom seen a movie that teaches a lesson like this that touches on the hidden and potential greatness in each of us.
© Robert S. Miller 2006